Our solar thermal system consists of a panel mounted on a building's south-facing wall (panel size depends on the heating objective - 4x6', 4x8', 4x10'), a controller (the system's "brain"), a fan to push or pull the warm air, & some ducting.

Wall Mounted Solar Thermal System
Wall Mounted Solar Thermal System

Q&A with Gwe Gasco, Sales and Marketing Director | 8th Fire Solar

Tell us about yourself and your role at 8th Fire Solar.

I am the Sales and Marketing Director of 8th Fire Solar; I've been in this position for just shy of two years. I handle all customer relations & outreach to potential customers. We are a small team, with only 5 of us currently. This means that alongside my sales & marketing responsibilities, I also handle most admin work, lead trainings, help with installations when needed, speak & present at conferences, run booths at conferences, help with logistics for any installations and/or work travel, build relationships with businesses & tribal communities & any other interested parties. I joined the team in 2019, when I was 19. I was a year out of high school and looking for work. On the White Earth Reservation, where I was born and raised, there aren't many job opportunities for young indigenous people.

 

There is a sink-or-swim mentality that depends largely on getting into a college somewhere in a more populated area of Minnesota. When I first joined 8th Fire Solar, it was just for a paycheck. As I've learned and grown in my work, I've realized the importance of our work. 8th Fire Solar exists as a solar thermal manufacturing and installation facility, we are a social venture of a community non-profit, Akiing 8th Fire. Our work consists mainly of fostering relationships with tribal communities through the installation of solar thermal systems on tribal houses or buildings. I've grown to understand the workings of solar thermal and truly believe in its potential as a renewable heat source that can be utilized by indigenous and non-indigenous communities alike.

 
Tell us more about Solar Thermal and why you believe it is an important technology.

Solar thermal is a vastly underutilized technology with incredible potential in areas facing brutal winter temperatures and communities facing the ever-present threat of energy poverty. In 2020, space heating in homes accounted for 42% of total energy usage, per the U.S. Energy Information Administration's "Residential Energy Consumption Survey" (RECS). Tribal communities often face a "heat or eat" dilemma, where the choice is between groceries for the month or heat for the month. Many tribal members are on energy & food assistance, with a lack of viable job opportunities. The community I live near is called Pine Point, with a population of roughly 150 tribal members. In Pine Point, there is a school, a tribal government building, & one gas station. Pine Point is between two small towns, Detroit Lakes & Park Rapids, roughly 35 miles from each. That's 35 miles that tribal members need to travel to find work when most don't have a reliable car, let alone a driver's license. Most people in Pine Point can only find work at the Shooting Star Casino, 60 miles away in Mahnomen, by using the tribal transit system.

 

This is a reality faced by many tribal communities throughout the United States and even Canada. Solar thermal presents a unique economic opportunity for tribal communities through 8th Fire Solar's scalable Tribal Pilot Project process. Our Tribal Pilot Project process works by first fostering a relationship with a tribal community. The tribe then picks a home or tribal building in the area and a group of tribal members for the training. 8th Fire Solar then works side-by-side with the trainees to install a solar thermal system on the chosen building or home. This creates a trained tribal workforce ready to install more solar thermal systems on tribal houses. 

 

The Tribal Pilot Project process is a win on every level; 8th Fire Solar secures more funding for future pilot projects through discounted sales to the tribal community, the tribe creates an economic opportunity for its tribal members, and tribal members that have solar thermal systems installed on their home's can save money by utilizing the clean, renewable, & supplemental heat supplied by the solar thermal system. This solar thermal pilot project process can be scaled to match a tribal community's size & it can be utilized alongside solar PV & other renewable technologies to further a community's energy independence. With solar thermal being an underutilized technology, there is less market pollution and competition for installations.

Gwe Gasco, left, and trainee Danny D. from the Lower Sioux Tribal Community 

 

What does 8th Fire Solar do in the field of solar thermal?

8th Fire Solar works with private residential and commercial entities as well as tribal communities. Our main focus is the implementation of solar thermal in tribal communities throughout the United States. In the future, we would love to expand further throughout the Midwest and into Canada. Solar thermal is an incredible technology with a unique potential as a renewable heat source, & 8th Fire Solar will continue our work to help tribal communities actualize this potential. 8th Fire Solar is uniquely positioned to bring this plan to fruition, as we manufacture our panels in-house and source 95% of our materials in the U.S. Simply put, 8th Fire Solar manufactures and installs solar thermal throughout the U.S. with a focus on installation & education of solar thermal at the tribal level.

 

Where does solar thermal stand in the renewable energy sector?

Solar thermal is a largely unknown renewable technology, specifically the side of solar thermal that 8th Fire Solar specializes in: space heat through a forced air system. Our solar thermal system consists of a panel mounted on a building's south-facing wall (panel size depends on the heating objective - 4x6', 4x8', 4x10'), a controller (the system's "brain"), a fan to push or pull the warm air, & some ducting. Most solar thermal systems on the market today are water-based, which can present those interested with difficulties with leaks & high installation costs. The same can be said for solar PV (photovoltaic - solar for electricity), as one of the biggest hurdles home & business owners interested in solar PV face is high installation costs. Besides installation costs, the viability of solar PV can depend on the state and even the county an interested party is in. Some utilities roadblock solar PV as much as possible, while others offer incentives to solar PV installations; the same can be said at the state level. Solar thermal, on the other hand, is an incredibly simple and cost-effective technology. Installations can be done by anyone with a small amount of carpentry knowledge at a fraction of the cost of a solar PV installation. A typical solar PV installation can cost between $10,000 to upwards of $20,000 in some cases, while a typical solar thermal installation costs around $3,000. Alongside the simplicity of solar thermal, there is the effectiveness. The heat from the sun is much easier to capture than the sun's rays are to convert into electricity. While most PV systems operate at a 15-20% efficiency, solar thermal systems have a much higher operating efficiency at around 70%. 

 

Solar thermal is a cost-effective, efficient, & simple technology waiting to be utilized further in this age of energy instability and social unrest.

 

What can solar thermal do for a homeowner? A business owner?

8th Fire Solar's solar thermal panels are supplementary heat sources. To be clear, they will not replace a home or business owner's existing heat system. Rather, our solar thermal panels offset your existing system's usage and save money in the long run. The system's controller analyzes the panels' temperature, kicking the fan on after a set internal temperature is reached. Depending on the day, region, and the weather, the system kicks on around 9 am and runs until around 5 pm. That's an 8-hour period of clean, efficient heat for a building. The overall impact of the supplemental heat depends largely on the energy efficiency of the building, which is something we make sure to stress to potential customers. With a correctly sized system (amount of panels and a fan to match) and a good solar resource, that 8-hour period of a 24-hour day equates to around a 1/3 of a building's heat, which means a home or business owner can save around 30% through their heating season. 

 

Can you share with us a use case for your product?

Through 8th Fire Solar's work with tribes throughout Minnesota, we installed a system for an indigenous woman named Tracey on the Bois Forte Reservation. Tracey has two of our panels installed on her home. One day in February of 2020, Tracey's propane ran out. She had nothing to heat her home except 8th Fire Solar's panels. This two-panel system kept her house warm until she got her propane refilled later that afternoon.

 

For another training installation, we installed two eight-foot panels on one of our employees houses, Darren Klarer, who still works at 8th Fire Solar. At the tail end of the winter of 2022, Darren's boiler went out. For that last month or so of cold weather, Darren used the two panels to heat his home during the day, & used ceramic heaters to stay warm during the night.

 

What are the biggest hurdles you see in expanding the use of solar thermal for heating?

The biggest hurdle I have personally seen is that people don't know what solar thermal is. When I mention solar to anyone, the first thing they think of is little panels on a roof somewhere, providing electricity. Even if I talk to someone who directly works in the solar field and I mention I work with solar thermal systems, they think I work with water heating systems. Solar thermal for space heat is an overlooked technology. I will admit it is a niche product compared to the widescale deployability of solar PV, but in the scenarios it can work, it works great. As the world shifts more and more towards renewable technologies and their viability for the future of the energy sector, there will be an increase in public knowledge of solar technologies and renewables in general. When that time comes, solar thermal will be seen as a cost-effective and popular choice for home and business owners looking to save money. 

 

Look down the road a few years, where do you see the use of solar thermal going and how is 8th Fire Solar involved?

I truly believe solar thermal has incredible potential in the future as renewable technologies become more popular. I hope to see more incentives for home and business owners to make the jump to solar and solar thermal specifically. 

 

Our team at 8th Fire Solar hopes to branch out into green building, energy audits, & installations of solar PV & solar thermal systems together. We hope to establish a bigger presence in places where solar thermal is needed, & we hope to continue our work with tribes throughout the states as we move towards a green economy & a green future. 

 

Gwe Gasco is an Ojibwe & Odawa descendant, born and raised in Minnesota. He spent his early years developing a fondness for the north country through hours of swimming and running through the trees.  For the past 5 years, Gwe has dedicated his time to solar energy -- specifically solar thermal -- at 8th Fire Solar.   Gwe started in the installation and assembly side of the business before working his way into the sales & marketing position at 8th Fire Solar. His work includes general administration, training, speaking engagements, and customer service & retention. Through his work, he has established relationships with tribal communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, & New Mexico. Gwe is NABCEP certified for PV installation, though his work focuses on solar thermal.

 

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AltEnergyMag

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