5 Jul 2011

EchoFirst solar electric / thermal systems getting traction in new homes

Written by Jim Pierobon

The recession and pull-back in many solar incentives through much of the world are not dissuading solar photovoltaic engineers from introducing what could be next significant leap forward in panel technology. Take the new panels headed for new home communities mostly in the Southwest by EchoFirst, Inc.

The way EchoFirst Chief Marketing Officer Gordon Handelsman explained it to TheEnergyFix, standard PV panels draw energy only from a narrow spectrum of the sun’s energy to create electricity. The remaining energy, which is mostly in the form of heat, escapes unused.

The idea behind Echo™ is to capture a much wider spectrum of the sun’s energy and utilize those same PV panels to generate both electricity and heat.

The principal way today to make thermal energy for homeowners today is to have a separate system dedicated for that purpose. Combining the two could be a game-changer and draw lots of attention at the two big upcoming solar industry conferences in the U.S., Intersolar July 12-14 in San Francisco and Solar Power International October 17-20 in Dallas. Competitors take note.

Echo transforms a 15% efficient PV panel into a 50% efficient panel. It uses a mechanical air blower to cool the panels which lose their efficiency as ambient temperatures increase. Heated and cooled air are supplied through the homes’ existing duct system or optionally through its own dedicated air registers. The system supplies pre-heated ventilation air on winter days and pre-cooled ventilation air on summer nights. Any existing furnace or air conditioner remains isolated from the solar system.

EchoFirst asserts this is how much quicker the payback is with its integrated solar PV / thermal system. Credit: Echo

Thus far, 32 new-home communities in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah either already or  soon will feature this integrated system from Echo. Although the have the claims have yet to be vetted by real world experience, the company’s data in the table at left appear credible after a lengthy product development effort that began in 2005 at the Department of Energy. Efforts to commercialize the technology began in 2009 backed by an array of patents and patents-pending. The Echo system is the brainhild of Echo co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Josh Plaisted.

Industry sources project the system to cost anywhere from 25% to 45% more than conventional, and separate, solar PV and solar thermal systems. Embedding that difference in the price of upscale new homes may be the only way EchoFirst, based in Fremont, CA, will get serious traction in the market place because the cost premium is not easily isolated.

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