by Jennifer Pinkowski
Every March, after more than 1,100 arduous miles through mostly tundra, mushers urge their exhausted sled dogs across the finish line of the Iditarod in Nome, Alaska. Locals line Front Street to cheer them on. Snow still covers the ground, and the average temperature is less than 20oF. But sunlight bounces off the snow, and the days are growing longer. Which means it’s the perfect time of year to exploit solar energy.
The Bering Strait Native Corporation (BSNC), whose corporate office is also located on Front Street, knows as much. Atop its roof is a 16.8 kW array of photovoltaic (PV) panels that supply about 15% of the building’s energy needs. BSNC has also installed solar water heaters on two of the apartment buildings it owns in Nome.
Why solar power in a place better known for being dark for months on end? Because as part of a hybrid system with diesel or wind power, solar may help cut the high cost of powering some 200 rural Alaskan villages, many of which must fly in the diesel they use to power their homes.
Lime Village, in southcentral Alaska, is one of them. After its 12 kW combination solar-diesel generation system was installed, average electric prices fell from $1.26 to $.56 per kWh. (After a recent population drop to 15, costs are up again.) The tribal school in nearby Chickaloon uses its solar panels to both cut energy costs and teach students about renewable energy. In the northeast is a third: Arctic Village, whose 3.5 kW solar array is partially equipped with a tracking system—the highest in the world.
Solar power in Alaska has a long history and one that helped lead to the wider use of PV panels. In the late 1970s, Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Lloyd Lomer proposed installing solar panels on Coast Guard buoys. If the lights on buoys were powered by the sun rather than by disposable batteries that had to be replaced by hand, the savings could be significant. To prove solar’s potential, Lomer installed a test panel on a buoy in cloudy Ketchikan, Alaska. It worked. Today 96% of the Coast Guard’s navigation aids are solar powered, including nearly 4,800 buoys in U.S. waterways.
Alaska gets as much solar energy as Arizona, says Brian Hirsch, team leader for Alaska for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL); Alaska’s sunlight just happens to be concentrated in a shorter period. Plus, he says, “Solar panels perform much better in the cold. If it’s cold outside, there’s less resistance in the panel. So it can perform 15% better.” Solar, Hirsch says, performs best in March and April when the days are growing longer but the ground is still covered with snow, which reflects the sunlight back up at the solar panels.
Alaska’s energy portfolio is rife with contradictions. Its sources are among the richest in the U.S. Some 90% of the state’s revenues come from petroleum. Nearly 25% of its electric power is generated by renewables, primarily hydropower, and its potential for more is huge.
Yet its lack of infrastructure and small, scattered population undermine its energy efficiency. Alaska has 20% of the U.S.’s land mass but only 1% of its population. As a result, Alaskans on the grid in Fairbanks and Anchorage pay a small fraction of the amount paid by those off the grid.
The Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) knows this. “The disparity between energy costs in various regions is enormous, far higher than that seen in any other U.S. state and approaching levels more commonly seen in the Third World,” according to the Alaska Energy Pathway: Toward Energy Independence, a 2010 report issued by the AEA. The report suggests continued development of renewable sources already well-established in Alaska, particularly hydropower and wind power.
Not surprisingly, solar doesn’t figure into the plan. Utility-scale solar power plants are uneconomical in Alaska with today’s technology, according to the Renewable Energy Alaska Project, a consortium of government, industry and nonprofit agencies.
But hybrid systems can ease the pain of high fuel costs in rural areas. The Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, a nonprofit electric utility cooperative supplying electricity to 53 villages throughout interior and western Alaska, is currently using a $600,000 grant from the AEA’s Renewable Energy Fund to assess the performance of utility-scale solar systems in villages.
Hirsch says solar aimed at heating homes rather than powering them has greater potential in Alaska. “If you were to look at a typical energy profile of a remote village, most energy is used to generate heat, not electricity,” he says. “And it’s easier to generate heat from solar panels than it is to make electricity. Maybe in January or February, it’s not going to do much good. But in March or April it can have an effect. It’s not going to replace all of your need for diesel fuel, but it’s going to supplement it. There’s always a diesel system running in the background. If you put up a solar panel, that generator is still going to run. It’s like easing your foot up on the gas.”
BSNC has developed renewable energy programs for the past 15 years, says Jerald Brown, vice president of the corporation. Most are wind-power projects in villages located in the 2-million-acre expanse of northwest Alaska that BSNC manages, but it’s also installed solar and hot water PVs right in Nome. It was Brown who in 2006 proposed to the BSNC board that they cut energy costs at its corporate office by installing solar panels on the roof. At the time, the price of electricity, supplied by Nome Joint Utility Systems, a municipal utility, was close to $.40 per kW. “So I did a pro forma showing that with the tax credits and bonus depreciation, the payback period was estimated to be about 12 years,” he says. “The panels were warrantied for 25 years with a life of 40, so it was a pretty easy sell.”
Since 2008, the solar panels have supplied about 15% of the power requirements of the three-story, 35,000-square-foot building.
BSNC has had good results with the solar water heaters it installed on two apartment buildings around the same time. One had come with the panels; the previous owner had bought but never installed them. Now they produce about 14 kW a year. “We’re impressed with the results. Our fuel bills have gone down and the water is being preheated nicely,” says Brown.
The other BSNC equipped with evacuated tubes a year ago. “It’s doing so good we had to put a heat dissipater on the building,” he says. “Now we’re looking at ways to capture that heat to put it in the baseboard heating.”
Selling solar in the villages has been more difficult. “In rural Alaska, people don’t typically own their own houses,” Brown says. “It’s relatively low income, and the housing authority provides housing, so there’s not the same level of home ownership that you’d have elsewhere.”
While solar in Alaska may have a perception problem, Hirsch says it naturally fits into the ideal of rugged individualism so prevalent in the Alaskan psyche. “Perhaps the biggest opportunity for solar power is its potential appeal to the classic Alaskan independent who lives off the grid,” says Hirsch. “Like with small-scale wind, people talk about using energy when it’s available—people who are willing to really live with the seasons. There aren’t a lot of people nationally who are willing to do that, but in Alaska, I would say it’s a proportionally higher amount. It gives people a level of energy independence that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”