Friday, February 8, 2008

Solar heating

We not only want our problem to be solved, we want is solved in an aesthetically or morally pleasing manner. Hence the appeal of the sun, as a solution to our energy issues. Sunlight surly conveys energy to the earth, and we know how t convert that energy into electricity. We also associate sunlight with beauty. There is a certain neatness in the idea of getting energy from the sun. The energy from the sun comes to us free. It comes to us without human toil and suffering. The idea of extracting energy from sunlight has an almost irresistible appeal. I am by no means opposed to the use of solar energy, in situations where its practical benefits clearly are greater than its costs

There are various schemes for extracting energy from sunlight. Unfortunately only few are clearly practical. Else where I have discussed the impracticality of using solar energy to produce massive amounts of electrical power. One practical solar energy application is solar water heating which is a cost effective and mature technology. Just ask Tommy Smothers.  Solar heaters can also be used for heating swimming pools, and even for space heating.  

Research shows that 25 percent of household energy use is invested in heating water. Even if a home owner heats water with gas or electricity at night or on cloudy days, he or she will still reduced water heating energy expenditures by 50% to 85%. Solar water heating clearly pays for itself.

Progressive states like California subsidize solar water heating installation.  Solar heating of homes and commercial buildings is also practical. In a future of high energy costs it may be necessary. Solar space and water heating systems may not provide 100% solutions. They may require backup during periods of extreme demand at night, or during extended periods of cloudy days.  

Solar water and space heating are most practical in the Southwest.  As you move east and north, energy input requirements demanding natural gas or electricity increase.  As they do the benefits of solar systems decrease.   But even in chilly Toronto, the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) is installing a solar water heating system, which hospital administrators expect will reduce energy costs.  

So why don't we do it then? Why don't we install solar hot water heaters on the roofs of our homes, all over the country? In 2007 a bill was proposed to the state legislature of Hawaii, that would have mandated solar hot water heating in new homes. This would actually benefit homeowners, because all the energy sources for the state are shipped to Hawaii. The proposal meet with powerful opposition. Not only did The Building Industry Association, the Gas Company, and the Electric Co. oppose the legislation, but they were joined by some unlikely partners. The Land Use Research Foundation wondered if the sun would shine. The Hawaii Renewable Energy Alliance worried that contractors would not do a good job with solar water heater installation, while the Hawai'i Solar Energy Association said the bill could reduce consumer choice.

Who would benefit from solar heating technology?  Just about everyone.  Readers  of this blog may note that there indirect costs of heating water and homes with fossil fuels  technologies. Natural gas, for example, brings radon into the home.  Radon is radioactive, and it as well has radioactive daughter products.  Like radioactive materials from reactors and atomic bombs, they can cause cancer.   Unless gas fired hot water heaters are well ventilated, radon from heating water can accumulate in homes.  I have reported elsewhere in this blog, my father's finding that household radon could be a factor in causing lung cancer.   The cancer cases indirectly caused by heating water with natural gas, are part of the cost of using fossil fuels hor water and space heating. 
In addition, as my post of yesterday shows, my father found that generating electric power by burning coal had a significant adverse impact on human health.  He reported that for every GWy of electricity generated by coal well over 100 people might die from coal related causes.   In addition, coal related pollutants are related to thousands of ER and hospital admissions every year.   By shifting water and in some cases space heating from fossil fuel sources, to solar heating, hundreds of deaths could be prevented, and billions of dollars in hospital and emergency room expenses could be prevented.   The health implications of shifting to solar water heating alone should be sufficient justification of government subsidies for solar water heating.  Indeed the health issue by itself would justify legislation requiring solar water heating in new homes.

A massive national effort to bring solar water and in some instances space heating to homes, offices, stores, businesses, schools and hospitals would be highly desirable.  It would save energy, and lower CO2 emissions, and would present positive health benefits.  There would be no major downsides to such a program.    


DV8 2XL said...

A company that I used to work at in Montreal, Quebec spent a small fortune building a solar-thermal array, However despite having every advantage (size, unobstructed horizon and all) they quietly tore it down after struggling to make it work for almost seven years. This by the way was a company with an in-house supply of talent and technical support that they could draw on, and the project had a lot of support from upstairs.

The problem that they could not solve was load leveling across a multi-building service area without keeping backup boilers at steam.

Now solar heat works - I heat my pool with a home-made array and it works rather well, and I am quite pleased. But in the end if the pool doesn't get as warm as I'd like that's just too damned bad - I don't use a backup because in the end a heated pool is a decadent luxury.

I know that given the right location and the right conditions solar-thermal can save money, no question, but it's role is as an auxiliary,unless you are very,very lucky.

Charles Barton said...

Hay David, If your pool is warm enough for you to swim in it, instead of your Canadian Polar Bears, that is already great! After 30 years of unfulfilled promises of abundant and practically free solar generated power, it is time for solar advocates on what solar energy does well, and leave the generation of electricity to the reactors.

Calvin Murphy said...

Your concern about radon and lung cancer are well founded. However, radon is a result of the uranium decay cycle and is drawn into the house as a result of pressure differentials betwen the house and the atmosphere. It does not enter the house along with natural gas used for heating.

Charles Barton said...

Mr Murphy, you appear to have not read my post on my father's research on radon in the home. His research showed that radon was present in natural gas. Most household radon enters the home primarily from the rocks and soil beneath it.


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