July 30, 2011
Watering a new solar-powered business based in West Virginia
Douglas Imbrogno
Inspired along Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast, researched in Chinese factories and developed in West Virginia, James Richards' Sunbank solar water heater business launched this July in Charleston with an aim to sell the units far and wide.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You don't notice it immediately when you pull up to the South Hills home where James Richards lives. But since he's standing on the driveway looking up at the thing, you do, too.

There's a cool, space-age contraption on the roof, with 20 parallel tubes of impact-resistant shiny glass, angling upward into a silver tank set on its side. The tank's green-and-red logo reads in large type 'Sunbank: www.thesunbank.com.";

Welcome to a new-old way to heat the water in your business or home, save money and vote for renewable energy, in one fell swoop: the rooftop solar water heater.

"That's the most efficient solar collector in the world," said Richards, gazing up at his contrivance.

Whether that superlative is indeed the case, the gleaming tubes are certainly some major league sun catchers. The rooftop unit is a prototype, a real-world proof-of-concept, which helped pave the way for the launch of Sunbank earlier this month.

"In a sense, this is kind of a new technology to the U.S," said Richards. "It's on every rooftop in China for the last 30 years. And they're all over Europe and the Middle East and Latin America. But they're just kind of coming here now."

Richards hopes to bring solar water not just to West Virginia but to customers nationwide. His timing is good.

Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute, noted in his 2009 book, "Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization" that until recently solar water was a niche market for heating pools in America, even as it has grown by leaps and bounds abroad.

"China ... is now home to 27 million rooftop solar water heaters. With nearly 4,000 Chinese companies manufacturing these devices, this relatively simple low-cost technology has leapfrogged into villages that do not yet have electricity. For as little as $200, villagers can have a rooftop solar collector installed and take their first hot shower."

And in Europe, where energy costs are relatively high, rooftop solar water heaters are spreading fast, Brown notes:

"The huge projected expansion in solar water and space heating in industrial countries could close some existing coal-fired power plants and reduce natural gas use, as solar water heaters replace electric and gas water heaters. In countries such as China and India, however, solar water heaters will simply reduce the need for new coal-fired power plants."

Aptly enough for a new business that hopes to be part of this global expansion, the seed for Sunbank was planted internationally. The idea first took root along the isolated Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, was nurtured inside Chinese factories, then brought to fruition by networking and lots of legwork on the Web here in West Virginia.

Sunbank also speaks to entrepreneurial possibilities in an interlinked world, eager for fresh ideas to cut ravenous energy consumption and rising energy bills. "It's kind of a new landscape for small business to do big things on small budgets," said Richards.

Solar water seeds

The 28-year-old Richards, a Charleston native who studied economics at Vanderbilt, worked and traveled widely after college, "working for different causes."

"Most recently, I was working in Nicaragua for a group called Blue Energy that does small-scale solar and wind projects on the east coast of Nicaragua, which is one of the most remote places in the Western Hemisphere," he said.

"We would take a speedboat sometimes for eight hours along the ocean and up rivers to get to these really isolated communities where we would be installing solar and giving them light for the first time. A pretty fascinating experience."

With a little down time, plus "a lot of PVC piping and some homemade elbow grease," Richards and friends built a solar water heater on the roof of a building. "So, I started doing some research, which culminated in a trip to some Chinese factories this past February."

What Richards settled on was a well-established solar water heater concept, based on a 30-year-old evacuated tube design that came out of a Beijing university. "I did a couple tweaks to the design to make it my own," he said.

A few weeks ago, several dozen Sunbank units shipped across the Pacific Ocean, steamed through the Panama Canal and came to rest in the South Hills of Charleston.

You can learn about the technology in more depth on Sunbank's website (also, see the companion Gazette video above for a look at how the device works). But the layered glass vacuum tubes are the soul of the concept, said Richards, "absorbing 96 percent of the sunlight hitting the tubes and turning it into heat in the water tank."

Getting back to it

Solar power has had its ups and down in America.

It is not well-recalled, but in the 1920s and '30s America was a world leader in solar water, a tale told in "A Golden Thread: 2500 years of Solar Architecture and Technology," by John Perlin and Ken Butti. A solar water heater called the Climax was advertised widely after its debut in the early '20s.

"There was huge installed capacity in L.A. and Miami -- even in Baltimore," said Richards.

The whole industry foundered when, among other reasons, gas got really cheap.

"Then it came back in the '70s when fuel prices were going through the roof -- solar water and solar panels, for that matter became the next big thing,"  he said.  "The Carter administration was helping with subsidies. Then, Reagan came into office in 1980 and cut all those subsidies -- and basically killed the industry."

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