Saving Money & Energy: How Solar Heating & Cooling is Paying Big Dividends for U.S. Businesses

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Released: October 9, 2014

This report details dozens of examples of how utilizing innovative solar and heating cooling (SHC) systems on U.S. businesses and commercial buildings helps save energy and money. The first-of-its-kind report, which focused on both cost and energy savings, was conducted with the help of the U.S. Solar Heating & Cooling Alliance, a division of SEIA. Today, there are more than 1,700 companies nationwide that specialize in SHC technologies.

Executive Summary

Many businesses and commercial building owners have already taken steps to reduce their electricity bills, by making energy efficiency improvements and installing renewable energy systems. But that is only the beginning. Across the country, business owners and commercial building owners are now catching on to the hidden treasure that is solar heating and cooling (SHC).

SHC systems are based on a simple process everyone is familiar with: Things left in the sun tend to heat up. With SHC technology, this thermal energy can be efficiently captured by solar collectors and transferred to heating or cooling applications, easily integrating into most buildings.

Given that heating and cooling are huge energy drains—representing 35 percent of commercial buildings’ energy usage—the potential benefits of SHC technology, both in terms of dollars saved and carbon emissions reduced, are enormous.

SHC systems are unique in that they generate thermal energy on site and displace the price-volatile fossil fuels traditionally used for heating and cooling. Including SHC systems in new building financing can often lead to businesses and commercial building owners achieving immediate positive cash flow, as the fuel cost savings can exceed the monthly payment for a financed SHC system.  For SHC, the cost of the fuel is free, and it always will be. While at the moment point-of-use costs for natural gas are slightly lower than solar heat in most regions ($0.06/kWhth for SHC compared to $0.04/kWhth for natural gas), when externalized costs and future volatility are considered, SHC can be the least-cost option.

Not only is installing a SHC system a smart financial decision, it is also a smart investment in the future as a way to reduce carbon emissions. SHC systems emit zero pollutants per megawatt-hour equivalent of thermal energy generated, while burning natural gas to generate an equivalent amount of heat energy results in 400 pounds of carbon emissions. With the expected operational life of SHC systems extending up to 30 years, even a small solar heating system has the ability to significantly reduce a building’s carbon footprint and lessen dependence on fossil fuels.

The following report highlights the broad scope of applications for solar heating and cooling systems. Hotels, grocery stores, commercial pools, dairies, breweries, and multi-family housing units are just some of the applications that benefit from the installation of solar heating technologies. Given that solar energy is available throughout the country, these systems can be designed for every state in the nation.   

Take a look through the many project examples that follow to see how SHC is making a difference for these businesses and commercial building owners. 

Sample Case Study

Project Name: Duffield Regional Jail

Location: Duffield, Virginia

Technology: Solar water heating

Overview: In 2013, the Duffield Regional Jail completed the installation of a solar water heating system on the roof. To date, this is the largest solar water heating system installed in the state of Virginia. Since expensive propane had previously been used to heat the water for the prison, the county looked to solar water heating to save on heating fuel costs. Funding for the project was provided by the VA Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy. The project received praise from many different individuals, including Virginia State Senator Phillip Puckett: "The project was on-time and under budget, and if we continue to do things like this, this is about the future. It will save money as we go down the road. In 10 or 11 years this project will be paid for and yet those solar panels will still be saving dividend.”

To view all the case studies, download the report

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