July 20, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, NY — Thoughts of solar energy most probably invoke images of shiny flat panels neatly arrayed across flat open fields or expansive urban rooftops. But that's only part of the picture. For a more comprehensive understanding about the real potential for solar energy, you have to go ask a plumber.
Solar energy is not a monolithic technology – it comes in lots of variations. The shiny flat panels increasingly spied on more rooftops around the city are what's known as Photovoltaic – or PV cells. Thirsty PV cells work by absorbing energy directly from the sun and converting it into electricity.
New York City is presently ranked ninth in the nation in the use of these sleek-looking solar panels, with enough of them now online to power more than 6,300 homes. And newly designated "Solar Empowerment Zones" could soon introduce even more of the them to the city landscape.
Progressive municipalities around the country, spurred on by cheaper costs and increasing environmental concerns, are quickly warming to solar power technologies like never before.
Here in the Empire State, Governor Andrew Cuomo's plan to reduce New York State's carbon emissions by 40 percent over the next 15 years, probably won't happen without the expanded use of solar power – in all its technological incarnations. And that's were the plumbers come in.
Unlike PV cell technology, Solar Thermal technology – the kind that the plumbers from UA Local 1 install – uses radiant energy from the sun to directly heat water or other fluids, which then can be stored or put to immediate use.
But although PV systems represent the 20,550 megawatts of cumulative solar electric capacity produced in the U.S. last year, they aren't always the best way to go solar.
Sometimes, especially in the case of large institutions like schools, hospitals, apartment houses and hotels, which use huge volumes of water daily, solar thermal products are often actually the smarter choice.
"Solar thermal may not be right for all systems, but big institutions and apartment buildings that use a lot more water, that's where it does make sense," says John Sullivan, an instructor at UA Local 1's training center at 37-11 47th Avenue.
SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, for instance, is using its new $2.7 million Solar Thermal array to provide the school's dormitories and main cafeteria with year-round hot water, while significantly cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions in the process.
Solar Thermal products – sometimes taking the shape of tubes, rather than panels – actually outperform PV Cell technology in some respects. While solar panels convert 18 to 20 percent of the radiant energy striking them into useable electricity, Solar Thermal products have the ability to convert more than 80 percent of sunlight into useable heat.
Advocates for Solar Thermal technology also argue that the systems can pay for themselves in half the time it takes Solar PV cell technology to recoup initial investment costs.
Arthur Klock, UA Local 1's director of Trade Education, also points out that there are space considerations associated with placing large solar panels on city rooftops that cannot be ignored.
"There's limited room on those rooftops, and the FDNY does not want the entire space covered in panels," Klock says.
Despite the many pluses in the Solar Thermal column, advocates for the clean energy technology say that a pervasive lack of incentives, financing and awareness are preventing solar thermal systems from sharing in the growing acceptance of Solar PV cell technology.
Innovative programs like Community Net Metering, which would credit customers for subscribing to local renewable energy projects, are receiving important governmental support, and could help further expand the use of solar energy across broader communities.
The plumbers of UA Local 1, however, aren't waiting around for more people to recognize the benefits of Solar Thermal technologies. The Long Island City Training Center currently prepares about 30 journey workers annually in the installation of Solar Thermal systems, and the capacity to train many more is there.
An entire section of the Long Island City training facility located on the first floor houses a fully-realized mock building devoted exclusively to Solar Thermal installation.
Says Klock, "Plumbers are used to working in the basement – but now we're learning how to operate on the roof as well."