Installations of solar water heating (SWH) systems in the U.S., though on the rise, still lag far behind the global trend. Though not as trendy or sexy as hybrid cars, or as visually striking as wind power turbines, hot water heaters are a significant component of national energy policy and use.

SWH’s technology can pay for itself in just 10 years by cutting home electric and fuel bills. SWH systems can cost as little as $50 per year to operate, have larger storage capacity and have a longer life expectancy than a traditional hot water system and provide an important reduction in electric and fossil fuel emissions.

A major part of the challenge in creating a more significant transition to SWH technology is the lack of a coordinated national public policy to encourage installation, though the federal solar tax credit is helping, and industry certification guidelines are rapidly improving the situation.

2006 estimated Solar Water Heater Installations* (excluding solar pool heating systems, which are really taking off)

  • Hawaii – 4,000
  • California – 1,000
  • Arizona – 1,000
  • Florida – 1,000
  • Oregon – 300
  • New England – 250
  • Mid-Atlantic – 250
  • Colorado – 250
  • Rest of U.S. – 400
  • TOTAL 8,450

Flawed tax credits and incentives instituted in the 1970’s have long since expired but current technology and the current federal Investment Tax Credit of 30% for solar energy bode well for an industry that’s operating at only 30 to 50% of manufacturing capacity. The federal tax credit has helped spur industry growth of 30 to 50%.

U.S. solar thermal collectors still made up less than 1% of the worldwide total in 2002 (China at 70% and Europe at 12% lead the way) and that ratio has not dramatically changed.* Austria, with a population of 8 million, installed more than 6 times the SWH systems in 2005 than in the entire U.S.. Countries like Spain and Israel have instituted mandates on construction and installation of SWH systems; and Australia is moving in that direction.

There was a time when the United States was an innovator and a leader in adoption of new technologies but we got fat and complacent. Global warming and the politics of energy are mandating that it’s time for America to take the lead again, even if it starts with something with all the sex appeal of a Solar Water Heater.

Sources: Solar Today (photo credit)

*Solar Energy Industries Association

Interstate Renewable Energy Council

Clean Energy States Alliance