At Solar Skies, It’s Always Sunny

On October 31, 2013, in Blog, by Jeanne Roberts

Randy Hagen, CEO of Solar Skies LLC (Alexandria, MN., in the heart of the Upper Midwest) is justly proud of his company’s newly purchased laser welder.

Not only is it the only one in North America, but it is one of only two on the North American Continent, which spans an area from Panama to the Arctic.

The other laser welder, in Guadalajara, Mexico, was formerly kept quite busy manufacturing the solar panels used to generate hot water. But that production capacity is now coming back home, where it belongs, proudly stamped “Made in America”.

Unlike the biggest ball of twine, another Minnesota highlight, the laser panel welder really is rocket science, and Hagen was only too happy to outline the company’s progress in this area while on his way to Solar Power International (in Chicago this year, from October 22-24).

Solar Skies – manufacturer of world-class solar thermal collectors and mounting hardware – will use the convention to showcase its ability to provide solar hot water collectors, stainless steel hot water storage tanks, and related items to homes, businesses and institutions not merely locally but across the nation, from the Twin Cities to Illinois and even Massachusetts.

Solar thermal, the neglected and often forgotten stepsister of the solar photovoltaic (PV) energy market, shared in the global solar energy nadir reached in the first decade of the 21st Century – before the Chinese blew out the market in 2011 with a glut of cheap solar panels. Fortunately, it didn’t suffer the same crash-and-burn as solar PV, largely because it has always been the most energy- and cost-efficient way to take advantage of the enormous power of sunlight.

As Clean Tech Blog editor Neal Dikeman pointed out back in August, while Canadian Solar remains strong, the U.S. is still working through the solar doldrums, where the backstory continues to be about project development and new financing vehicles in a leaner, meaner market where serious competition has shaken loose all the overripe fruit.

In spite of millions of dollars of stimulus money, solar PV continues to struggle with costs and the Shockley-Queisser limit (the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar cells) in an attempt to reach grid parity, loosely defined as the point at which renewable, alternative energy venues can compete with the price of electricity from traditional fuel sources (coal, natural gas and nuclear, for example).

This continues to be generally true in spite of announcements from Motley Fool that the U.S. is selling green energy below spot prices. Fortunately, solar thermal hot water – not to be confused with utility-scale or high-temperature solar thermal energy – doesn’t have to worry about theoretical efficiency limits (typically 18 percent and theoretically 33.7 percent). It operates at a predictable and praiseworthy 70-80 percent, and never more so than from the carefully designed and manufactured collector panels made at Solar Skies.

Hagen, who got his start in solar PV using thin film to operate a ventilating fan in an aviation application, started Solar Skies in 2006 and a year later launched commercial manufacturing capability.

“Solar thermal costs didn’t plummet with the solar PV glut in 2011; it was already cost efficient. In fact, there never has been much wiggle room.” Hagen noted.

And even though wind is the really big thing in the Upper Midwest, solar thermal hot water stands a good chance of catching up just because of prevailing weather conditions. For example, even in January, when it’s absolutely frigid outside, the skies are clear and the sun shines.

“This means that a couple of 4 by 8 or 4 by 10 panels producing about 40,000 Btu’s per day will deliver about 65 percent of a home’s hot water needs. In the summer, it will be 100 percent.”

At a cost of about 10 grand, with a federal tax credit of 30 percent (which can be built into a mortgage on new homes), the cost is very affordable. Add in any utility, city or state incentives available in some areas of the U.S., and you get an easy 6- to 10-year payback. Coincidentally, this is also about the lifetime of the average hot water heater.

And the best part? There is very little that a homeowner needs to do to maintain a well-made and properly installed solar thermal installation (properly being a 45-degree tilt). Hagen doesn’t even recommend clearing snow.

“I have never cleaned our collectors. I let Mother Nature take care of that. All it takes is a little bit of open space to start the process of melting.”

It’s the kind of carpe diem attitude Minnesotans are familiar with. Life is short; eat dessert first. For Hagen, who has two daughters in grade school and an architect wife who works out of Glenwood, it meant rescheduling an interview to synch up family life and work life, with family coming first.

Which is just the way it should be, right?

 

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