Despite winter darkness, solar power might work better in rural Alaska than you’d expect

This aerial photo shows the island village of Kivalina, Alaska. What is the future of solar energy in communities like this one? (Andrew Harnik/AP/The Canadian Press)
This aerial photo shows the island village of Kivalina, Alaska. What is the future of solar energy in communities like this one? (Andrew Harnik/AP/The Canadian Press)
Harnessing solar power in Alaska might not, at first, seem very effective.

The sun is a rare sight in much of Alaska during winter, and doesn’t even make an appearance for weeks at a time in northernmost Barrow.

But sunlight actually might be a factor for remote areas trying to diversify their energy sources. Villages here, some with the help of the federal government, are looking to solar as an alternative to diesel fuel.

Sleek solar panels are already cropping up in small towns in the Arctic and elsewhere, and many more are on the way.

But how cost effective might solar power in the darker parts of Alaska really be?

Paul Schwabe is a senior energy and financial analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, and he’s been studying the economics of solar here.

“You wouldn’t think Alaska would work because of the winter conditions,” he said. But the unrelenting summer daylight is a big help.

“(Communities are) on diesel in the summertime, sometimes still 100 percent, in some villages. And solar tends to work better in colder, drier climates. So the (photovoltaic) production is quite strong.”

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy, authored by Schwabe, found that in some parts of the state, using solar power could be economically competitive with diesel, depending on the price of each.

That study looked at how the alternative energy source would pencil out in 11 remote villages across Alaska, from Wainwright in the far north to Adak in the Aleutians and Tenakee Springs in the Southeast.

The study’s findings suggest that solar, along with other cost-saving measures, “can be economically competitive in many remote Alaskan villages and could have a number of benefits, including reducing a village’s dependency on diesel fuel, improving electricity price predictability, providing local environmental benefits, and more.”

Solar costs coming down in recent years also might help to make it a viable alternative in Alaska, said Schwabe. He’s seen solar energy garnering more attention in Alaska and nationally.

“And also because of Alaska’s fiscal situation, some forms of diversification beyond just diesel are a good thing,” he added.

Integrating solar energy in rural parts of the state would also ideally help insulate villages from fluctuations in the price of diesel that can have a direct impact on daily life there, he said.

Harnessing the Arctic sun

Some communities are already getting started.

The Northwest Arctic Borough over the past few years has added solar panels to its water plants in 11 communities. There, some of the solar panel arrays are arranged in half-circles to harness light because of the sun’s position in the sky during the summer.

“In the last few years, we’ve proven that solar works in Alaska,” said Ingemar Mathiasson, energy manager for the Northwest Arctic Borough.

Solar has saved the combined water utilities in those 11 villages about $80,486 and 123 megawatt hours of electricity since the first array was installed in 2013, he said. That figures out to water bill savings of $10 to $15 per household per month.

Last year, two homes in Arctic Village — in the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area — got solar panels, and more will get paneled this year.

“The cost of energy in Arctic Village, I would describe it as crippling,” said David DeLong, director of Arctic Village Housing Organization. That’s in large part due to how much it costs to actually get the fuel to the tiny community of 152 people.

The state “has more than 175 remote village populations that rely almost exclusively on diesel fuel for electricity generation and heating oil for heat,” according to Schwabe’s study. The price markup from flying or barging in that fuel is one reason why alternative energy sources, including solar, are “increasingly being pursued in remote Alaska communities.”

And some far-flung locales just got federal money for such projects. NANA Regional Corp. and Hughes Village Council in March landedfunding from the Department of Energy to install solar in Kotzebue, Buckland, Deering and Hughes.

NANA believes the technology will meet somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of the electrical load in each village and save more than $200,000 annually, and Hughes hopes to reduce diesel consumption by 50 percent by 2025.

“Ultimately, the goal for Kotzebue, Deering and Buckland is to turn off the generators when we can,” Mathiasson said.

Sonny Adams, director of energy at NANA, said he hopes it’s the beginning of more similar projects in the region.

“I think it’s important for everybody to understand the sense of urgency for why it needs to get done and done soon,” he said. “We won’t have that relief until the barge comes in.”

Economies of scale

But using solar power doesn’t come without challenges. Because of the state’s long winters, it can really only be used from late February into October — and even that varies by location.

Another tough part is that solar, and its storage system, needs to be integrated with the already existing grid.

“You can’t just stick a bunch of solar on and turn the diesel off,” Schwabe said.

Sean Skaling, policy and programs director at the Alaska Energy Authority, said people should look to weatherizing and other cost-saving measures before jumping into solar. Though solar isn’t a major focus at AEA, he said it’s an area that’s “growing in interest.”

CapStone Solutions Inc., a Redmond, Washington-based energy and wireless services company, is doing solar construction in Naknek and is working with three other Alaska villages to get panels installed. President Jason McEvers, who wouldn’t specify where those three villages are, said it can be tough to make the projects economically viable in rural Alaska.

“The single biggest challenge is getting these projects to pencil,” said McEvers, especially for small communities that might have just a hundred or so residents. But nevertheless, he said “the potential is huge” for solar in Alaska.

Schwabe’s study found that some areas are better fits for solar than others, and more research is still needed to get more precise estimates.

Energy from the sun might also be accessible to a wider swath of the state than other renewable resources.

“With wind, it’s super site-specific, with hydro, even more so,” said David Pelunis-Messier, rural energy coordinator for the Tanana Chiefs Conference. He helped install solar panels in Arctic Village. “With solar, the amount of sun that hits Fairbanks is pretty close to the amount that hits Fort Yukon or wherever.”

He said that in the Interior, home to the 235,000-square-mile Tanana Chiefs Conference area, most villages run off essentially 100 percent diesel fuel.

“We’re just trying to integrate solar seamlessly into that,” he said. “Technically, all the pieces are there, but it’s a big problem with economies of scale.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Energy challenges in Canada’s North, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  Helsinki consumers cool on solar energy, Yle News

Norway: Japan wants wind power from Arctic Norway, Barents Observer

Russia: No alternative to Arctic oil says Russia environment minister, Barents Observer

Sweden:  Will Sweden be able to produce enough energy in the future?, Radio Sweden

United States:  New Alaska rules may help renewable energy projects, Alaska Public Radio Network




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