When most people generically speak of "solar" technology, what they are often referring to is photovoltaic, or PV, technology. While perhaps an understandable misconception, the widespread use of "solar" as a synonym for PV lets solar thermal advocates like us know that we have a lot of work to do. PV generates electricity; solar thermal directly heats something up, like the water in your house (we'll talk more about the economic and technical differences between the two in a future post). The conflation of the two terms points to the success that the PV community has had in promoting their technology in the US, and to a large degree their effort has raised the tide for all renewables.
However, the solar hot water community (itself a sub-sector of solar thermal) simply doesn't have the resources and scale that the PV ecosystem does, which is populated by multi-billion dollar companies with large marketing and lobbying budgets. That means that we need to get more creative and take the message to the people. Two thoughts here.
One, we need to unleash our creativity to better get the word out and tell the story of solar hot water more clearly. There are a few voices in the wilderness like Solar Fred and Solar Thermal Advantage, but the mainstream press has missed the boat almost entirely. Sunnovations is trying to do its part having produced a new video that tries to make the case for solar water heating and illustrate how our technology works in simple terms. AO Smith, the large tank manufacturer, is doing a 2-year bus tour, but it isn't particularly solar-specific. Where are the rest of the vendors? We've been advocating amongst our peers for a "Got Milk?"-like campaign for solar hot water, so we'll see where things go.
A second, perhaps more promising, concept is putting more resources behind grassroots organizations that have popped up all around the country with the mission of bringing renewables to the masses. A couple of the more sophisticated are Solarize Seattle (who published a really great "How-to" manual on building such a program) andSunshares in San Jose, CA. Closer to our home, we have Arlington's Solar Raisers and DC's Solar United Neighborhoods programs. All of these examples use the power of group purchasing, volunteerism and peer recommendation to lower the cost of and increase the deployment of residential renewable energy, all on little or no program budgets. Most of them started with a focus on PV, but many are now turning their attention to solar hot water. It is a woefully missed opportunity that Solar America Communities, the US Department of Energy's flagship market development program, has not actively supported these programs while at the same time almost completely focused on PV to the exclusion of solar hot water and other worthy technologies.
The solar hot water movement is not tilting at windmills. There is ample precedent here and around the world that solar hot water can and will be a meaningful part of the solution. In the US alone it was a billion industry in the early 80's, and it is currently a $4 billion sector in Europe. We just need to apply some creativity and grassroots push to make it happen again here.