USA: Utility Networking for Solar Thermal Energy
 USA: Utility Networking for Solar Thermal Energy

Logo USH2O

USA: Utility Networking for Solar Thermal Energy

 Logo USH2O” A unique network promoting solar thermal energy has developed in the USA: The Utility Solar Water Heating Initiative (USH2O) launched in 1994 offers utilities, as well as companies related to the solar thermal sector, the opportunity of concerted advocacy initiatives, and exchanging knowledge and experiences. The aim of USH2O is to facilitate the successful implementation of utility solar water heating programmes and educate stakeholders about the potential of solar heating and cooling technologies.

“USH2O was started by a group of four utilities with support from the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL),” USH2O Coordinator Chip Bircher explains. “These four utilities – Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), Eugene Water & Electric Board (EWEB) and Wisconsin Public Service (WPSC) – were launching solar water heating programmes at that time. DOE and NREL felt it was important to support their efforts because of the strong influence and relationship that utilities have with their customers.”

In the meantime, USH2O has grown from its four members to over 350 today, representing utilities, solar thermal programme managers, manufacturers, distributors and installers of solar water heating systems, state governments, and other solar thermal organisations, such as the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA), the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), and the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation (SRCC).

Every second Tuesday a month, the members of USH2O come together for their regular conference call. They talk about new incentive and utility programmes, new legislation concerning solar thermal, upcoming conferences and webinars, publications, etc. It has proven to be a very efficient way of dealing with new information, as it enables national key players in the field of solar thermal to regularly update their state of knowledge. According to Bircher, the monthly number of phone calls has risen from around 20 a few years ago to over 60 in 2011.

“USH2O’s mission is to help utility solar thermal programmes succeed, and we focus on providing the latest information about new programmes when they are launched, as well as lessons learned from established programmes,” outlines Bircher. “In the last six months, over a dozen new utility solar thermal programmes have started up, so it’s an exciting time.”

USH2O’s utility partners manage the largest and most successful solar water heating programmes in the United States (see attached paper from 2005). In late October 2010, for example, utility Lakeland Electric in Lakeland, Florida, launched a new programme for the promotion of solar water heaters. The Lakeland Solar Hot Water Service offers homeowners the possibility of purchasing the energy a system generates for a monthly fee comparable to the monthly electricity costs of a family of four. The 2011 target is to install 1,500 solar water heaters.

The service focuses on residential customers who require average amounts of hot water and prefer not to purchase their own solar heaters. The only cost to the customer consists of a 20-year fixed, monthly energy fee of USD 34.95. This rate is comparable to – and often less than – the current cost of water heated by electricity or propane for households of four or more. In addition to a fixed price plan, the customer receives other benefits, such as no up-front costs, additional hot water storage, zero maintenance costs, a reliable supply and the option to purchase the system.

“Last year, our utility entered into an agreement with a solar investment company, Regenesis Power, for the installation of up to 20,000 solar water heaters upon full build-out,” Jeff Curry, Renewable Energy Manager at Lakeland Electric, states. “By promoting the widespread installation of thousands of residential solar water heating devices, we will have a positive reduction on the utility’s energy generation and delivery systems while producing clean renewable energy. This is a high-impact, utility-scale project, equivalent to one enormous PV farm, but it is very discreetly woven into the fabric of the community, one house at a time.”

Additional benefits of the Lakeland SHW programme are subtle, but effective as well. “The Lakeland Electric model introduces solar technologies to local citizens, giving them a chance to adopt solar at no cost,” says Jeff Curry. “And while the solar initiative generates emission-free energy and creates green sector jobs, the solar heaters consume no natural resources and utilise a zero-impact construction technique.”

In addition to utilities, the network includes many representatives from the solar thermal industry. “These companies provide state-of-the-art equipment and have developed creative business models to bring solar hot water to more Americans,” states Bircher. “USH2O provides a link for these companies to network with utilities and move the solar thermal market forward.”

Further USH2O supports the concept of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), or green tags, based on all renewable technologies, including solar thermal. “In the US, renewable portfolio standards are increasingly broadening their definitions of qualifying technologies,” says Bircher. “Currently, 11 states plus Washington D.C. include solar thermal, and USH2O and its members continue lobbying for similar regulations across the country.” (see In 2005, Lakeland Electric even managed to sell solar thermal RECs from its programme to another utility for use in the purchasing utility’s green pricing programme.

“Whenever solar thermal heating and cooling is recognised as an energy-generating technology and treated equally with other solar and renewable technologies, USH2O counts that as a success,” summarises Bircher. “Since USH2O began, members have provided input to legislation at the state and federal levels, in order to encourage legislation and programme rules that recognise solar thermal’s important role. We’ve been successful in some cases, and we continue working wherever there is an opportunity.”

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Stephanie Banse

Stephanie Banse is a German journalist specialised in solar thermal technology.