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Harnessing the Sun : Solar water heating and solar-driven air conditioning result in financial savings, and much more.


Last week, when everyone was being pounded by the record heat, it occurred to me that the hot orb up there, which was turning our cars into ovens, is a mighty powerful thing. It reminded me that when we harness some of the sun's heat, it can be used to make life more comfortable.

I asked a couple of experts about this: Rick White of California Solar in Thousand Oaks and Allen Carrozza of Scholfield Solar in Ventura. These guys are competitors, but they share a skill; they control the heat that's coming down.

"We set you free," said White, describing what happens to a merchant or homeowner who lets a reputable solar-heating firm replace a gas or electric water heater with one that uses the sun.

White just finished equipping 250 tract homes for Fieldcrest, the big builder. He's also done condos and health clubs. Pools and showers at all these stay comfortable for 10 cents on the dollar compared to gas. It's five cents on the dollar for electric, according to the California State Energy Commission.

Solar is so efficient that the electric utility in Sacramento is promoting solar as a way to meet expansion plans. Sacramento Municipal Utility District--known thereabouts as SMUD--is trying to get its existing customers to cut down on electricity use so the demands of future hookups can be met without having to build new generators. SMUD is giving a rebate in excess of a $1,000 to homeowners who convert to solar. The changeover, anywhere in California, can run from $2,000 to $4,000, depending on whether the homeowner has a pool.

"The pay-back is about five to six years," said Carrozza of Scholfield. He just completed an installation at Big Bear's community swimming pool, where the water heating bill will no longer be $1,500 a month, but $150 instead. According to the trade magazine Pool and Spa News, "some of the savings (of city funds) have gone to pay the lifeguards."

So much for the canard that environmentalism means job loss.

Carrozza distinguished himself this spring by initiating a campaign to get the White House to return to solar water heating, as it had in the 1970s.

He enlisted fellow Venturan Charles Imbrecht, currently chairman of the California Energy Commission and a prominent member of the Republican Party. Imbrecht arranged to have a Carrozza's proposal hand-delivered to the President--a request for permission to install a solar rig there--for free.

"The matter is on hold because of issues related to the management of that historic building," Imbrecht said by phone from Sacramento. But according to Imbrecht, the President did take himself to Colorado last year to dedicate personally a federal research center devoted to solar and other alternative energy research "on par with what has been going on with nuclear."

Carrozza's own efforts to promote government energy thrift have met with more success locally. His company has installed solar panels for facilities like senior citizen housing, school and park pools for the cities of Ventura, Port Hueneme, Fillmore, Oxnard, Thousand Oaks and Camarillo.

Businesses are into saving money by tapping power from the sky above, too. Carrozza's firm has also installed solar for the humble Motel Six and the grand Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club.

And solar can fit in just about anywhere, said California Solar's Rick White. It isn't just for tract houses and civic facilities, with their no-frills look.

Mansions, such as Kenny Loggins' spread in Santa Barbara, can have the solar built in to look unobtrusive or stylishly hi-tech.

The Ventura County Fair has a display about solar in the Floraculture Building.

Heating, by the way, isn't the only way to use this low-cost, low-polluting power source. By using technology that for years appeared in refrigerators hooked up to city gas mains, we can now get air conditioning from the sun.

The closest examples I could find were in Sacramento, where engineer James Bergquam has installed the technology in several office buildings.

No gas bill, no electric bill. Once you pay off the initial cost in about five years, you're really "free," thanks to power from above.

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