Jason Edens, a former high-school teacher, was facing a long, bleak winter without money to pay his heating bills during Minnesota’s frigid months, when the average temperature hit a high of 24 degrees. Edens applied for government energy assistance, which is offered in the form of cash to offset the cost of heating oil, a relatively dirty diesel-like fuel. Instead of taking the subsidy, Edens asked for a low-interest loan to install a solar heating system. He was rejected. Rather than accept the “no,” Edens found a second-hand solar unit that slashed his winter heating costs and eliminated his need for energy assistance.
“That was a bit of an epiphany moment,” writes Eden who is now director of the nonprofit Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), which he founded to turn his near-frigid experience into a business of installing thermal heating units for low-income households. “I was studying environmental policy and discovered research surrounding low-cost energy solutions for low-income housing. The nexus of those two events created the ‘Aha’ moment of delivering solar heat to low-income families on energy assistance as a long-term, a domestic and clean solution to fuel poverty.”
The small Minnesota-based group manufactures its own solar heating panels here in the U.S., deploys them across the country, from Montana to Maine, charging just a fraction of the price of photovoltaic systems with comparable energy savings. Homeowners can save more than $20,000 over the two- to three-decade life of the system, despite the $5,000 average home installation cost (which is still less than half the cost of solar electricity PV systems).
RREAL’s technology is actually a solar air furnace–a cleverly designed black box designed to absorb solar energy and blow back warm air into a building. Although direct solar air heating has been a commercial business for large companies for years, this is one of the first modular designs for homes or commercial buildings. It works anywhere there is even a modicum of sunlight and is far more efficient than panels, achieving 50 to 60 percent efficiency while typical photovoltaic panels only convert about 15 percent of the sun’s potential energy into electric power, reports Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).
Working with Americorps, RREAL is now installing units across the coldest regions of the country. Farmers in northern states are even using the technique to extend their growing season from 90 days to more than 300, reports MPR. In Washington, D.C., Congress has introduced bi-partisan legislation to make technologies like RREAL’s eligible for the same federal tax credits that have helped launch the solar and wind sectors.
“We’re most excited about the opportunity to deliver a low-cost, effective and usable technology to the energy assistance and weatherization community,” writes Edens. “Using renewable heating to address low-income energy needs and affordable housing is a win-win solution. This concept is gaining traction throughout the nation, and that is at least part due to our efforts.”