BINYAMINA, Israel, Oct. 30 (UPI) -- An Israeli company has combined the electricity production of photovoltaic solar panels and the heating capacity of solar thermal water heaters to build a product whose potential market could reach $20 billion over the next 20 years, according to its chief executive officer.
"This is the most promising branch of PV, despite its being totally new," Ami Elazari told United Press International.
Photovoltaics -- the panels installed on rooftops that convert sunlight to electricity using a chemical reaction -- naturally heat up when exposed to the sun. As the panel's temperature rises, its efficiency falls, so many types of panels feature cooling systems built in.
Millennium Electric, founded in 2000, is one of the first companies to harness that extra heat and use it. Elazari said that the system runs water along the back of the panels to cool them. That heated water can be used by the home or business owner, he said.
Because the panels remain cooler than regular PV panels, they maintain a higher efficiency, Elazari said.
There still isn't much research available to the public on the technology. One academic paper called "Performance and costs of a roof-sized PV/thermal array combined with a ground coupled heat pump" concluded that installing a PVT system on a home roof cost about the same as installing two separate systems, one of regular PV panels and one solar thermal water heating.
Furthermore, the paper, which appeared in the journal Solar Energy in 2005, found that "the electrical and thermal yield of this reference system (where the PV and water heating functions are separated) is equal to that of the PVT system."
"There are about 15 companies around the world who are trying (out this technology), but they're still at R&D," Elazari said. "We are the only company that sells (photovoltaic thermal technology)."
The company has signed partnership deals in the United States, Italy, and most recently South Korea, and has another 70 megawatts of unsigned deals in the works in places such as Greece and Spain.
The South Korean deal will yield a 20 megawatt plant that will be ready to go online in about three years, but the United States is the real market to watch, Elazari said. "We're trying to push into the American market."
"It's a big market that's waking up now," he said, adding that he attended the Solar Power 2006 conference earlier this month in San Jose, Calif. with Millennium's American partner, Heliocol.
Elazari sees the potential market as having "a lot" of money to be made -- "more than any other country."
The United States, especially California, lags behind solar leaders such as Germany, Japan, Spain and Greece in their incentive programs for solar energy installation. However, 2006 saw the enactment of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Million Solar Roofs Initiative and the extension of solar tax credits in California, while eight other states moved to become more solar-friendly with incentive programs.
Because of the legislative promise 2006 showed, coupled with an unprecedented turnout of nearly 7,000 at the conference, Solar Power 2006 attendees projected a feeling of optimism and excitement that the U.S. solar market is on the brink of going big.
But Elazari is less enthusiastic about his company's market in Israel, saying that for the time being, there is no real market in the country. "I've done everything possible in Israel, but there is no assistance from the government."
Though a 1981 law requiring all new residences to include solar water heaters means that nearly 90 percent of Israelis use them, Israel has no other renewable energy incentives to speak of.
Elazari pointed out that in countries such as Germany, Spain and Greece, the incentive legislation helps homeowners see a return on their investment within as little as five years. Israel may get much more, and much stronger sunlight than these places, but without help from the government, it will be at least 15 years before Israelis see a return on a solar investment.
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