Solar water heating enjoyed its sixth consecutive year of growth in 2010, according to Rhone Resch, President & CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Solar Power International’s conference in Los Angeles in October


Solar water heating enjoyed its sixth consecutive year of growth in 2010, according to Rhone Resch, President & CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Speaking at Solar Power International’s conference in Los Angeles in October, Resch said the square footage of installed solar thermal collectors jumped from 2.6 million in 2009 to 3 million this year, a 16% growth rate.

At a time when other industry trade shows have contracted due to the current economic climate, SPI’s Expo continued to smash records. Over 27,000 people attended the three-day show and the number of companies exhibiting jumped from 925 in 2009 to 1,100 this year.

While most of the show and the conference dealt with the photovoltaic side of the business, some 70 solar thermal collector manufacturers and 31 solar hot water distributors were exhibiting at the show.

Unveiled at the event was the first solar job census that reported that there are over 93,500 solar workers (defined as people who spend at least 50% of their time on solar related activities) in the U.S.

And while 50.2% of those reporting indicated they handle water heating, 8.9% indicated that most-to-all of their installation work was hot water heating.  Just over 50% of solar firms expect to add jobs over the next 12 months.

The growth rate for plumbers with specific skills in solar installations is expected to hit between 25% and 32% in the next year, according to the report.

Jeff Mahoney of Rheem, speaking at a solar thermal session, indicated that historically product was brought to market one of two ways - manufacturer to distributor to dealer to consumer or manufacturer to dealer to consumer. Mahoney reported that utilities (some of them offering product, installation and financing), online sales and big box stores are emerging channels in the solar thermal industry.

Ole Pilgaard of Heliodyne lamented that the single biggest impediment to the solar thermal industry is “cheap energy” in this country. He said that in 2008 when oil peaked at $140 a gallon interest in solar thermal spiked. Now oil costs about $80 a gallon.

He said that heating and cooling account for about 40% of the energy  consumed in the U.S.

Federal tax credits for solar installations were first enacted in 1978 and between 1978 and 1985 there were $1 billion in solar thermal sales. When the tax credits were rescinded in 1985 between 85% and 90% of solar companies in the U.S. closed. Once tax credits were available again in 2007, the industry gained momentum.

Three of the five energy businesses on the FORTUNE 100’s list of faster growing companies in the U.S. are solar manufacturers.