Engineer banking on solar energy Hot water system being marketed

September 02, 1993|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

By some industry estimates, the market for solar energy products in the next five years could reach $7 billion. Fariborz S. Mahjouri, an Iranian immigrant who landed in the United States in 1979, is among those hoping to bask in the glow.

Dr. Mahjouri, a Columbia resident with an Ph.D in engineering, was so convinced that he left his job managing the Middle East operations of a U.S high-tech firm to market a solar energy-powered hot water system in this country. The system was designed by his brother, Farmarz, who was having success marketing in Europe, Japan and Asia through his company, Thermomax.

Dr. Mahjouri is not blind to the hurdles his operation faces cracking the fossil-fuel-hooked market in America. As head of Thermomax USA, Dr. Mahjouri is responsible for developing the Canadian and Mexican markets, too.

"I'm fighting traditions; people have the perception that you need a centralized power source for your home and office, when really it is much more efficient to have the power source right there connected to your building. You lose a lot of energy getting it from a power plant to your hot water heater. There's no common sense to it."

Dr. Mahjouri, like executives at the 128 other U.S. companies producing about $500 million worth of solar energy products annually, should have several forces working in his favor during the next several years.

For one, financing construction of expensive, huge fossil or nuclear power plants has becoming increasingly scarce. Utilities, a result, may be forced to encourage customers to pare their power drain with alternative energy sources.

Also at play is a more aggressive push expected by the Clinton administration in enforcing the Clean Air Act in the nation's cities. The clean air law also now includes what's called an "allowance reserve," which will permit utilities to pollute longer if they move ahead with pollution prevention measures, such as solar energy.

Scott Sklar, a spokesman for the Washington-based Solar Energy Industries Association, says the market for manufacturers of solar energy products is improving dramatically.

Companies that are able to stir up private capital to finance marketing and distributing their products stand to gain the most, Mr. Sklar says.

For Dr. Mahjouri and Thermomax USA, it would mean making a deal for the company's sole product with one or two big utilities or companies, Mr. Sklar says. Such deals would give Thermomax the profile it needs to attract investors.

"They have perhaps the most well-known name in the business for companies marketing their type of product," Mr. Sklar says. "They've been very aggressive about promoting their name and product. What they need to do now is attract private capital."

But Dr. Mahjouri isn't interested in private investment in the company. In fact, he says, he's already turned away several suitors.

"Private investment means decisions move to Wall Street instead of being made in the boardroom of the factory," he says.

Right now, he says, he's more interested in building a name associated with quality rather than profit for the company. He also believes the product can be marketed successfully to the residential market.

While enjoying strong name recognition in the industry, Thermomax has at least a dozen competitors in the United States marketing what's known in solar industry parlance as a heat pipe solar collector, or tube.

Thermomax's product works this way: vacuum sealed tubes, measuring about four feet long and three inches in diameter, are installed with a manifold and water pipes on the roof of a building. Inside each tube is a thin copper sheath coated on one

side with a semiconductor material that absorbs heat and light. Heat is transferred to condensers plugged into a manifold where water circulates. The water picks up the heat and then is xTC pumped to a holding tank for use.

The vacuum seal makes the product efficient by preventing heat loss, and prevents corrosion of parts inside the tube, Dr. Mahjouri says.

"It's a very efficient collector," Mr. Sklar says. But it's also more expensive than the other solar technology used to heat water, called a flat panel system, he notes.

"Because of the higher cost, their most likely markets are utilities and companies with larger buildings," Mr. Sklar says.

Dr. Mahjouri's brother launched Thermomax at a small factory in Northern Ireland 13 years ago. Since then the company has had success marketing the product to residential customers in Europe and Japan where fossil fuels cost much more than in the United States.

A system consisting of about 30 tubes would be enough to

supply a family with several children living in a four-bedroom home with an adequate supply of hot water, Dr. Mahjouri says. The average cost for such a system including installation: $5,000.

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