Can Solar Heating Rival Natural Gas?

Building solar panel installationThough solar continues to play second fiddle to wind and PV, Heliodyne CEO Ole Pilgaard believes the potential is there for solar power to capture a large proportion of the market when it comes to heating and cooling technologies.

This belief is supported by “Solar Heating & Cooling: Energy for a Secure Future” – a roadmap prepared by BEAM engineering, on behalf of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). The roadmap seeks to encourage further investment in R&D projects for the solar power industry, and proposes a number of policies and incentives intended to support the implementation of Solar Heating and Cooling (SHC) systems throughout the United States.

It’s hoped that the successful execution of such measures will see more environmentally-friendly solar-powered heating systems rise to challenge the dominance of natural gas in the sector.


The Challenges of SHC Implementation

Around 30,000 SHC systems are installed in the United States every year, generating an estimated $435 million in annual revenue and providing around 5,000 jobs.

What’s more, SHC systems are composed of materials that are easy to acquire and easy to recycle, and they are non-toxic. SHC systems are also carbon-efficient, generating 0 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-thermal, as opposed to the 400 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-thermal produced by natural gas.

However, SHC systems still require higher installation costs. Add to this the fact that many buildings lack the specific design features required for them to be able to accommodate such systems.

These issues, combined with a general lack of consumer awareness regarding the capabilities of solar power, are viewed as the biggest obstacle to the advancement of solar heating.

But Pilgaard believes that – with additional investment in research, it will only be a matter of time before solar heating technologies are able to compete with the cost-effectiveness of PV and wind power. Furthermore, according to Lux Research, utility-scale solar power can be competitive with natural gas by 2025.

Other nations have embraced what solar power has to offer, with China currently able to boast the highest gigawatts-thermal of installed SHC capacity. United States, ranked 36th, is lagging far behind; but it’s hoped that the institution of policies set forth by the BEAM Engineering roadmap will rectify that.

The road map proposes a target of 300 gigawatts-thermal of SHC capacity by 2050, or approximately 100 million SHC panels; enough to meet 8% of the United States’ heating and cooling requirements, create 50,000 jobs, save $61 billion in energy costs and $19.1 billion in electric and gas transmission and distribution upgrades. It would also reduce CO2 emissions by an estimated 226 million tonnes per year.


Advancing the Cause of Solar Power

In January 2014, an Administrative Law judge in Minnesota ruled that the state would be better served by the installation of additional solar power arrays rather than natural gas generators, believing that solar power would be capable of meeting the projected power requirements whilst providing customers with a better deal in the process.

This was seen as a major victory for solar power, as it would prompt Edina-based Geronimo Energy to build 20 new solar arrays; making it the first case of a solar project out-competing natural gas in a state without solar power incentives. Organizations supporting the BEAM engineering roadmap hope to ensure that it is the first of many such victories.


Image credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers , CC BY-ND 2.0, Via Flickr

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