In the 2012 January/February issue of Solar Today, Bob Ramlow was featured discussing his thoughts on the future of the solar thermal industry. Bob entered the solar industry 40 years ago, designing and installing solar hot water systems and distributing solar PV and wind equipment. When asked about his thoughts on what the solar hot water industry needs, Bob was blunt “we don’t need research and development, we need promotion.”

I agree with Bob and so does the data. According to a recent SEPA report, solar hot water is economical at today’s prices for 16% of US households in 72 electric utility areas. Solar hot water is economical today if, and only if, you focus on the right customers in the right markets. It is NOT an economical option for everyone. Not every customer is a perfect fit, the application must be right. This isn’t new, it’s the same for solar PV, wind or geothermal. The best solar hot water markets in the U.S. are located in the Northeast due to high energy costs and low inlet water temperature, and the Southwest due to the large solar resources.

I reached out to Bob because I wanted to get some more color behind his Solar Today article.

Here are the highlights from our discussion: 

  • Bob recommended to contractors to focus on new construction, if you can. It’s cheaper to install and it will be bundled into the mortgage, making it profitable for the homeowner from day 1.
  • Focus on areas with high fuel prices. Basically, everywhere with no natural gas.

Here’s what we talked about:

  • Do you ever think SHW will become mainstream?
  • What do you think is critical for SHW adoption?
  • What is the role of renewable energy portfolio standards in the adoption of solar PV and how has that left SHW behind?
  • People’s perceptions need to change about economics. People spend money on things that don’t have any return all the time.
  • You brought up two great points about SHW industry growth. The first is policy. The second was focusing on the correct time when the project is being sold because if its bundled with a mortgage its a no-brainer. What is your advice for contractors to get involved with local policy and for getting customers at the right time?
  • Between 7 and 9 million water heaters are changed every year. Why do you think manufacturers are NOT trying to cross sell solar hot water? It would drastically increase the size of an otherwise small water heater project. Given that 9% of US households are changing their water heaters every year, it seems obvious this would be a large opportunity. Why aren’t more people focusing on this?
  • SEPA just put out a report about 3rd party SHW financing. It brings up an interesting point. The technology works and is economical, but for some reason businesses aren’t flocking to it like PV or geothermal. Do you think this will change? Do you think if financing comes online it will bring growth?
  • What are you really excited about in SHW, what do you think is going well?

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