Last heating season was one for the record books, and on the verge of the deep freeze this year, many communities are concerned about how to keep their homes, businesses, and institutions warm without breaking the bank. This is particularly true in rural communities where there is higher dependence on delivered fuels like propane and fuel oil.
We spoke with Jason Edens, Director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), about their approach to renewable heating. RREAL manufactures solar-powered furnaces and installs both solar thermal and solar PV systems through their installation arm, REAL Solar.
Give us your take about last year’s heating issues.
The perfect storm of the Polar vortex and a wet harvest last year led to immense demand for propane across greater Minnesota. However, the biggest challenge for rural communities dependent on propane was the loss of almost half of the annual supply. With the permanent reversal of the Cochin pipeline that had been supplying 40% of the state’s propane supply, economic hardship was felt across rural Minnesota. Propane costs shot up to as high as $6.15 per gallon in some communities. This presents serious questions about the energy security of rural Minnesota. And it seems like this may be the new normal.
How do you see solar thermal fitting into this mix?
Although the propane industry is working to backfill with a rail play, there are other options. In addition to energy efficiency, solar thermal could replace much of the lost propane supply and do so with a less costly, longer-lasting, and more climate-appropriate solution.
For example, at the newly acquired REAL Solar headquarters in the small rural community of Backus, Minnesota, we’re proving that to be the case. The 4,000 square foot building was dependent on propane alone upon purchase, but a newly installed solar space heating system including ten Made-in-Minnesota solar collectors will save about 40 million BTUs per heating season. Having harvested the first Made-in-Minnesota Solar Thermal Rebate in the state, this project will likely pay for itself in less than ten years. Saving the company about $1,500 per heating season, the REAL Solar headquarters will be more resilient against the upward trajectory of the cost of propane for at least three decades.
We often hear more about solar thermal hot water systems than we do about solar air heat. How does it work?
Simple and effective, solar air heat recirculates the air within the building when the solar resource is available and the building is calling for heat. Buildings such as the one in the picture can be found across Minnesota, and they are perfect candidates for vertically-mounted solar air heating collectors. This project is highly replicable, and it represents a great opportunity for rural communities to address a portion of their own heating needs. Let’s backfill the propane shortage with a clean, Minnesota based energy—solar heat!