News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Solar Hot Water: Good Enough For Alaska, Good Enough For California

Installing a solar water heater above the Arctic Circle | Photo: Kotzebue Electric Association

Californians have been using solar energy to heat their household water for more than a century, and up until 30 years ago or so you'd see as many solar water haters on Californian rooftops as you would photovoltaic panels. But with the burgeoning photovoltaic market of the last few years, it might seem that soaking water in rooftop sunshine is a bit antiquated. But a utility in northwest Alaska is pushing rooftop water heating lately, using it as a lifeline for its most vulnerable customers. Which raises the question: is there anywhere solar won't work?

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Even above the Arctic Circle on the shores of the Bering Strait, solar thermal water heaters -- which run water through a series of tubes that absorb solar heat -- turn out to be an efficient way to reduce fuel use not only to heat water, but to keep your living quarters warm as well.

In 2008 the Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA), which provides power to many of Kotzebue's 3,000 or so residents, embarked on a pilot program with the with the Kotzebue Community Energy Task Force to install solar water heaters on the rooftops of six of KEA's elderly customers. Three of the systems provided domestic hot water, while the other three also provided hot water to baseboard heating systems. Installed since December 2010, the systems have cut down considerably on the elders' heating costs.

That's an important consideration in a remote, wintry place like Kotzebue. With average monthly high temperatures near or below freezing for eight months out of the year, and fuel prices boosted by the city's remote location, getting every bit of warmth out of the sun you can is a good idea.

And apparently it works well enough to bother, even with short winter days: Thursday's day length in Kotzebue will run a bit more than an hour and twenty minutes.

If solar thermal is worth pursuing above the Arctic Circle, then it certainly must be worth a thought in Yucapia! It's not that solar water heating is obsolete in California, though the most prominent mentions of the practice these days are where it's used to cut down the utiltiy bills for owners of heated swimming pools.

Still, it seems sometimes like PV gets all the attention. But you don't have to be throwing money away heating a swimming pool to benefit from solar hot water systems. Solar water heaters for domestic tap use are eligible for state government subsidies in California. It's easy to find out whether you might qualify for some of that cash to switch your water heating from gas- or electric-powered to solar. GoSolar California has a website set up for just that purpose.

Depending on your rooftop, your neighborhood, and your skill at reducing your electric bill through conservation, you may find that solar hot water is a better investment, cutting your water heating energy costs by up to 75 percent. (You can estimate your specific savings with this calculator.)

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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Solar hot water systems typically consist of a storage tank and a rooftop array that collects heat from the sun to warm the water.