Heating up alternative energy

Solar thermal advocate argues for Colorado to be this technology’s next home

Don Tartaglione | Boulder Weekly

Colorado is primed to be powered by solar thermal energy, but one big challenge stands in the way: No one seems to know about it.

Neal Lurie, executive director of Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association, presented a talk on the benefits of solar thermal energy and Colorado’s opportunity to be at the forefront of its implementation during the Boulder County commissioners meeting on June 14.

The lack of awareness about this alternative energy source presents one of the biggest obstacles of implementing solar thermal energy, Lurie says. Colorado’s climate is near-perfect for the alternative energy source, and startup loans for those wanting to make the switch will be available starting in August.

The technology used in solar thermal increases in performance when the outside temperature differs from the heated liquid inside the panels. The greater the temperature difference, the more efficient the process.

Colorado is the best-suited state in the country for thermal technologies due to its great amount of sunshine, differences between night and day temperatures and its cold groundwater, according to research conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Florida Solar Energy Center.

When it comes to solar energy, photovoltaic (PV) solar panels draw most of the attention. Those solar panels transfer the sun’s rays directly into electricity.

Solar thermal energy uses sunlight to heat a liquid, usually water or a saline solution, which is then used to heat a home or a swimming pool. It can also generate electricity by heating a turbine, causing it to spin, but it is most commonly used for heating purposes.

One of the major benefits of solar thermal energy is how efficiently the heated liquid can be stored for later use, an aspect that solar panels lack due to the difficulty of storing electricity. The technology can keep the liquid hot enough to use for several hours after sunset, according to Lurie.

“Think of the storage unit as a giant coffee mug,” Lurie says.

Other parts of the world are far ahead of the United States when it comes to using the sun as an alternative energy source, according to Lurie’s presentation. One out of every 10 cups of tea in China are being heated using solar energy. Sixty million Chinese homes and 10 million European homes have solar thermal systems installed, compared to less than 1 million in the United States, according to a Solar Thermal Roadmap released by the Solar Thermal Alliance of Colorado. Lurie says 80 percent of Colorado homes are heated with natural gas, which he describes as an economically volatile source of energy due to its fluctuating price.

Currently, natural gas prices are relatively inexpensive, which creates little economic incentive to switch to solar thermal, he says. But in the long run, the stable price of solar thermal heating methods could motivate people to switch. The average cost of solar thermal systems is between $2,000 and $4,500, according to rechargecolorado.org. One of the benefits of investing in renewable energy is that money is almost immediately saved due to a drop in energy costs of a home or business.

Elevations Credit Union will launch a program Aug. 8 to provide loans to homes and business to cover the costs needed to invest in solar thermal and other energy efficiency technologies.

“There is about $35 million in lending capital available for homes and businesses in Boulder county and the city of Denver,” says Jeremy Epstein, Energy Smart finance project manager for Elevations Credit Union’s project.

To qualify, buildings must have achieved a 15 percent energy efficiency rating by utilizing technologies such as energy-saving windows and light bulbs before receiving the loan.

“The goal of the grant is to create a market transformation in the field of energy efficiency whereby it becomes a new norm,” Epstein says. And the more people who make the switch to solar thermal energy, the argument goes, the more people will have a chance to hear about the technology.

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