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Solar thermal industry set to boom

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The rapidly growing photovoltaic industry has spawned thousands of jobs for people who design, make, and install rooftop solar arrays for homes and businesses. But the smaller solar thermal business is also set to boom in the United States, according to a new government report [PDF]. Solar thermal products come in all sizes -- from rooftop panels that absorb the sun's rays to heat swimming pools and provide hot water for homes to huge mirror arrays that heat liquids to create steam to drive electricity-generating turbines at solar power plants.

Employment in the solar thermal collector industry jumped 22 percent in 2009 from the previous year, said the report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The number of solar thermal companies increased by 19 percent.

It's still a small industry, with revenues in 2009 reaching $96.7 million, a 19 percent spike from the previous year. At the same time, total shipments of solar thermal products fell nearly 19 percent.

That's because swimming pool products accounted for 73 percent of the industry in '09. But that's poised to change, as developers are set to break ground on several large-scale solar thermal power plants in the desert Southwest this year.

Those projects will deploy tens of thousands of mirrors, solar troughs, and other components. California alone in recent months has licensed solar thermal plants that would generate more than 4,000 megawatts of electricity -- that will heat a whole lotta swimming pools.

German solar manufacturer Schott, for example, has built a solar thermal component factory in Arizona to supply projects in the Southwest, and other manufacturing facilities are planned for the region.

The seeds of the coming boom can be found in the report's 2009 numbers.

While Big Solar accounted for only about eight percent of the industry's shipments that year, it brought in a quarter of the revenue, a 435 percent spike from the previous year.

Although 57 percent of solar thermal imports -- China was the No. 1 supplier -- were for the pool industry, components for solar thermal farms are likely to be manufactured domestically given their bulk.

In other words, the hot jobs will be found here.


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