Friday, February 5, 2010
GLORIA PENNER (Host): New rebates and tax credits are making it easier for San Diego residents to use solar energy to heat the water in their homes. But, is a solar water heater worth the cost? The industry thinks so. KPBS reporter Sharon Heilbrunn has the story.
SHARON HEILBRUNN (KPBS Reporter): Solar water heaters might be more affordable now that state regulators recently approved $350 million in rebates for homes and businesses that switch to solar water heating. Katrina Phruksukarn of the California Center for Sustainable Energy says this is a boost to the industry.
KATRINA PHRUKSUKARN (CA Center for Sustainable Energy): This is very exciting. It's something that has been much anticipated by the industry. Not only the California Center for Sustainable Energy but also for solar water heating installers, and solar water heating manufacturers and then of course, like you said, folks who are looking to install this type of technology. This is going to be hopefully the financial push or kick that will help them be able to afford these systems. So it's definitely going to be something that will make it more cost effective. An average solar water heating system should offset about 75 percent of the energy that is currently used to heat your water.
HEILBRUNN: Well, how exactly does a solar water heater work?
PHRUKSUKARN: A lot of people think a solar water heating system replaces your current conventional fuel water heating system, and actually it works in conjunction with whatever water heater you have. This is the most common solar collector that you'll see in San Diego. It's a flat plate collector. And this is what will go on the roof. This one collector will literally heat the water needs for about two people in the home. So there's plenty of space on the roof if you did want to install a solar electric system as well. And the way that the system works is ... Again, this is on the roof. You'll see it's a dark surface that will be absorbing the heat from the sun. It's covered with a glass plate. So sort of like your car on a hot day, it has a greenhouse effect, the heat is trapped inside, that's also how this collector works. So it traps the heat underneath the surface and we can't see this, but underneath this surface are small copper pipes that contain water or a heat transfer fluid.
HEILBRUNN: Most systems cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to buy and install.
Homeowners can expect about $1500 in rebates and 30 percent in tax credits. The size of the rebates will shrink as the program nears its end date, in 2017. For San Diego resident Jack Cooper, the price is worth it, even though the average return on investment is anywhere from 5 to 20 years.
JACK COOPER (San Diego resident): I'm saving money every day that I have it on, so eventually it's gonna pay for itself.
HEILBRUNN: So, Jack, on a day like today; it's pretty overcast. Are you still saving money with the solar water heating system?
COOPER: Yes, I am. Anytime the sun breaks through the cloud, today I'm running anywhere from 150 to 160 degrees of water.
HEILBRUNN: Up to 40 percent of a homes' energy use can go towards heating water for showers, dishes and laundry. The California Center for Sustainable Energy ran a solar water heating pilot program for nearly two and a half years. It ended in December.
PHRUKSUKARN: We approved 407 applications. So far, 263 of those projects have been completed and received a rebate.
HEILBRUNN: Joe Backman of Adroit Solar, a company that specializes in high-end solar systems, is seeing interest pick up.
JIM BACKMAN (President, Adroit Solar): '09 has been a tough year in general, in the residential construction economy. But a lot of people have been thinking about solar and thinking hard about solar and now the mass movement is really going in that direction.
HEILBRUNN: He says that besides saving money, there are quality of life benefits as well.
BACKMAN: You'll be improving local air quality, reducing your family's carbon footprint. You can actually increase the capacity of hot water you have, so you have more hot water available. And you'll know that it was heated by the sun.
HEILBRUNN: For more information on solar water heating, visit www.swh.energycenter.org. We want to know if you've installed a solar water heating system in your home. Tell us about it as kpbs.org/sdweek. For KPBS, I'm Sharon Heilbrunn.