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US shipments of solar thermal increase 12% in 2008

Almost 17 million ft2 of solar thermal collectors were shipped in the United States in 2008, but that level was 18% below 2006, according to government data.

“The US solar thermal industry experienced a mixed year in 2008,” says Solar Thermal Collector Manufacturing Activities 2008 produced by the Department of Energy (DoE). The “good news” included the commissioning of the 5 MW solar thermal Kimberlina facility in Bakersfield, California and a large-scale heating and cooling system in Fletcher, North Carolina.

These solar thermal projects used both national and state tax credits to reduce capital costs, but many solar companies were unable to obtain financing while waiting for an economic turnaround. This contributed to delays or cancellations of proposed solar thermal projects, as well as companies leaving the industry or delaying their entry.

The total of 17m ft2 in 2008 was 12% above the 2007 shipments of 15.2m ft2, but 18% lower than the 20.7m ft2 shipped in 2006, the report notes. Low-temperature solar thermal collectors accounted for 14m ft2 of the total, which is 0.7m ft2 more than shipments in 2007, and 92% of low-temperature solar thermal collectors were used in the residential sector, nearly all for pool heating.

“While the US solar collector market has modestly rebounded in 2008, the solar thermal pool heating market was flat,” the report notes. “In part, this is likely due to the persistent declines in US home sales and prices, and the economic downturn.”

Shipments of medium-temperature solar thermal collectors was 2.6m ft2 in 2008, 42% more than in 2007, and 81% were used for water heating. “The increase in medium-temperature collectors is believed to be mainly due to federal tax credits and state incentives,” which can reduce associated capital costs by 30%.

High-temperature solar thermal collectors shipped primarily for utility-scale concentrating solar power (CSP) totalled 388,000 ft2 and represented 2% of total shipments in 2008. “The outlook for substantial growth in high-temperature collectors is favorable; with increasing pressure to adhere to their stated renewable energy portfolio targets, US utilities are looking to CSP as a way to generate renewable power on a large-scale.”

Total shipments in 2008 were well below the 2006 record level by more than 18% and, “with the economic slowdown, it is difficult to estimate when the solar thermal industry will see significant recovery, even with the incentives included in the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008,” the report states. “Nonetheless, with this new legislation as an incentive along with other federal and states funding stimulants, the potential for solar thermal industry growth could eventually be substantial.”

In 2008, there were 74 companies active in manufacturing or importing / exporting solar thermal collectors, “a significant increase from the 60 companies operating in 2007.” Employment in solar-thermal activities was 1083 person-years (PY), a “substantial” 58% increase from 2007 levels, with average employment per company at 14.6 PT, compared with 11.4 PY in 2007.

The solar thermal industry is highly concentrated, with the five largest companies accounting for 83% of total shipments, although this concentration was the lowest in the past 20 years. The decrease is likely to be due to new start-up companies that have entered the solar thermal market over the last three years.

Total revenue for solar thermal collector shipments was US$81.3m in 2008, an increase of 36% from US$59.8m in 2007. Revenue of low-temperature collectors was US$26.5m, while medium- and high-temperature collector shipments averaged US$54.7million, up 63% compared with 2007.

The average price for low-temperature solar thermal collectors was US$1.89/ft2 in 2008, down 4% from US$1.97 in 2007, while the average price for medium- and high-temperature collectors increased from US$18.33 to US$18.57/ft2 in 2008. The overall average price for total shipments increased 21% from US$3.95/ft2 to US$4.80/ft2 in 2008.

Of total shipments, exports were 2.2m ft2, of which 2.1m ft2 (94%) were low-temperature solar thermal collectors. Exports accounted for 13% of total US shipments, dominated by sales to Canada (36%), Mexico (20%) and Brazil (15%).

The report on solar thermal collectors is prepared annually by DoE’s Energy Information Administration, its statistical and analytical agency. Data in the report are based on manufacturing shipment information reported by companies in an annual survey.

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