Turns out solar hot water heating was "hot" business in the American south from around 1900 to 1950 with manufacturers in CA and FL.
In 1891 a single home solar water heating unit cost $25 and saved an annual $9 in coal. By 1930 there were ten american companies competing in the solar water heating market, and from 1937 to 1941 80% of new homes built in Miami were equipped with solar water heaters. By now there is no large scale market for solar water heating.
So "Who killed American solar? "
The usual suspects.
Utility companies wanted to push their gas and electric.
Builders put in the water heater with the cheapest up-front cost (usually electric), despite solar being cheaper overall.
An angle not put forward in the article is that the public accepted this; either didn't care or were not smart enough to do the math; or both.
An excerpt from the article:
To make matters worse for the solar industry, "a new force, the large-scale builder-developer," showed up in Florida. These companies had a perverse set of incentives because they built homes before they sold them. Their only concern was driving down the up-front cost of construction. Electric water heaters fit their needs perfectly because they seemed cheaper, even if their cost over the life of the house could have been higher. "Developers almost always included electric hot water systems in new homes because of their low capital cost," wrote a historian of the period. "Monthly electricity bills were not their concern."
With all that stacked against them, the U.S. domestic solar hot-water industry slowly withered away. However, others picked up where American R&D had left off, notably Levi Yissar's work on new absorptive coatings in Israel. The Japanese market boomed, as did Turkey's and much of the European Union. But China became the big market. In 1991, the country had little solar-heater manufacturing capacity. By 2005, 35 million Chinese families were using solar hot-water heaters, with solar commanding a 12% market share in the country. In 2007, China had nearly 70% of the world's 2.2 billion square feet of installed collector capacity. Chinese solar-heater production outpaced Americans' by 160 times.
Like so many other renewable energy industries, a field that the United States once dominated has moved on to greener pastures. A technology invented and improved in the United States is a dim memory here and a thriving industry elsewhere.
Full text of the story: (but the on-line version is missing the historic pictures of American subdivisions with solar heating that were in the print magazine)