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-agey 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 there's 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 solar water 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. ....
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