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Shining Light on Alaska’s Solar Energy Future

Engineering bright ideas and installations


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What is 4.6 billion years old, 864,938 miles in diameter, 10,000 Degrees Fahrenheit in its photosphere and 92,960,000 miles from the Earth?

Perhaps an easier question to answer is what shines light on Earth of such intensity that humans can harness its radiant energy to power buildings, equipment, and appliances?

Right—the sun.

The proliferation of solar energy applications in Alaska is benefitting our environment, pocketbooks, and the industries that focus on solar technology. From the design stage of panels and harnessing the sun’s enormous energy to the complexity of engineering and integration to the actual installation and implementation of the technology, the sun has become a partner in Alaska commerce and infrastructure. As the future brightens for business and development, when it comes to solar power and synergy, Alaskans may just be getting the best end of the deal.

 

Let there be Lime—The Design Phase

Jesse Moe and Chet Dyson were high school pals in Anchorage. They shared interest in owning their own business and being entrepreneurs. They both had an affinity to burgeoning technologies evolving in the world of alternative and renewable energy. Dyson pursued an education and trade skills in construction. Moe enrolled in the University of Alaska Anchorage’s engineering program and became an electrical engineer. They partnered in 2011 and formed Lime Solar.

Lime Solar sells solar modules and thermal equipment for homes, businesses, and government facilities and offices. The company’s inventory includes wind turbines, batteries, and inverters. Lime Solar also offers design consultation and direction for projects large and small.

Over the last three years Moe estimates he has designed the majority of grid-tie solar projects in state. “One of the primary reasons I entered the renewable energy market in Alaska is the lack of expertise in the state. The myriad benefits of utilizing solar power range, from cost savings to the reduction of carbon emissions, were also important considerations,” says Moe.

Over 2014, Moe designed projects including an 80kw (kilowatt) solar panel array in the Glenn Square commercial center in Anchorage’s Mountain View neighborhood. The installation will be completed in 2015 for the Cook Inlet Housing Authority.

Another set of designs was made for 38kw and 40kw solar panel systems within low income housing units on Lake Otis. The project was encouraged by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC) and is intended to alleviate tenant electricity costs. One housing unit is built and the remaining will be completed in 2015.

In Fairbanks, Moe designed a 12.5kw array for the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Sustainability Program. This solar project had a dual purpose: UAF students could study the technology and application while lowering building electricity costs, which in a small but cumulative way beneficially affects the state budget and tax payer liability. In the same region, Lime Solar designed a 19kw solar array for dormitories on Eielson Air Force Base to reduce electricity costs.

“A real champion of alternative energy partnership is Golden Valley Electric Association [GVEA] in Fairbanks,” adds Moe. “GVEA’s clean energy incentives, earned through its SNAP program, encourage smaller renewable energy projects in conjunction with net metering and power grid relief.” Based on its website, GVEA has seventy-five members participating in the SNAP program with a combined capacity of 1.5 megawatts.

Moe says that in 2014 an 80kw solar array, the largest in Alaska, was designed in the Bristol Bay community of Naknek for its high school. The power goes directly to the school and lowers the electricity costs. Similar to UAF, students can also get exposure and an overview of the technology. “Home owners, businesses, and even governmental entities are looking for ways to reduce pollution, monthly costs, and expenses throughout our state. Many rural communities are seeking the best option for alternative energy within harsh and inclement Alaskan conditions and climates,” notes Moe.

Lime Solar recently designed a 200kw solar array for a prospective project in Bethel. Should the engineering and installment come to fruition, set-up will be the largest and most powerful solar array in the state.

 

Making Sunshine Work—The Engineering Phase

After design, typically the next phase of a solar array project in Alaska is the engineering. In solar energy parlance, photovoltaic (PV) effect is the term describing the conversion of light (photons) into electricity, which is measured by voltage. Most people enjoy the fact that the sun emits energy in the forms of light and heat. Achieving the PV effect involves the sun’s radiation, which is known as sunlight. The sunlight shines on a photovoltaic cell that is most often made of two layers of silicon for semi-conduction, chemically treated, and referred to as P and N. A diode is formed within the boundaries of P and N so that the photons from the sun’s rays, and the electrons from the diodes, interact and cause voltage.

Granted, this is a simplified explanation, but engineers in Alaska are surfacing with the vision and goal to work with alternative energy paradigms like solar electric and heating systems that create voltage and critical power systems to operate and maintain infrastructure from urban to rural locations.

One such company is EIC Engineers. EIC was founded by an electrical engineer named Eric Cowling who came to Alaska in 1994. The company’s professional electrical engineering services are geared for industrial, commercial, and residential projects throughout Alaska. Cowling has a staff of seven and he and his team have worked on several alternative energy power and solar systems in 2014, which includes feasibility, life-cycle cost, and energy analysis. The engineering package he offers to designers like Moe at Lime Solar is “immeasurably helpful,” as Moe describes the relationship, and “integral to the process” of solar energy implementation in the state.

Whether on an existing or new building, while companies like Lime Solar provide concept and components like inverters, panels, and design drawings, it’s the electrical engineers and electricians who must devise and construct.

Solar panels act in parallel with electric systems. Older models used to be off an electrical grid, requiring batteries. Today solar panels parallel feeds with the electric utility, producing an interconnected system.

Cowling’s company worked on the Lake Otis low income housing units in 2014, as well as a new Snow City South restaurant coming to a mall in Anchorage. EIC also worked with Lime Solar on the Naknek high school gymnasium project on all engineering aspects of the solar panel build. “In the solar energy building process, the electrical engineer provides the design that interconnects the solar panels and brings wiring down into inverters, and then from inverters back-feeding into the electrical system,” notes Cowling.

Cowling and his team perform the majority of the engineering design from their office in Anchorage. “Our take on the solar energy model and integration in commercial and residential settings in Alaska is that it’s an up-and-coming technology that will enable buildings to become more efficient and economical. Granted, there’s a first-cost component to the budget equation when the technology is purchased, but without the need for batteries and because of an expanding availability to procure product, renewable energy systems like solar panels are gaining in popularity throughout our state,” Cowling says.

 

Spendy Upfront Costs

Both Moe and Cowling are transparent about the costs, disclaiming that solar energy systems range in price, and the very first cost is the initial investment. Whether small or large, an initial cost outlay is required that may raise an eyebrow to a homeowner, business, or bureaucrat who may erroneously think there’s an immediate savings in electric costs. For the most part, solar energy systems save the owner money in the long run, not immediately, suggest both engineers.

Cowling reminds that power is relatively inexpensive in Anchorage in comparison to rural Alaska, with the difference often as much as 12 cents in the city per kw hour versus 60 cents per kw hour in rural locations. This tangible financial realization has enticed rural communities to consider enhancing or building a new solar energy system for their home, business, or government offices.

Another Alaskan firm that helps design alternative energy systems, including solar projects, is RSA Engineering. RSA just celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2013. The company’s specialty is in both rural and urban electrical and mechanical design, from power plants to waste treatment plants and from full electrical to renewable energy systems.

 

 

Milaud Baumgartner is a twenty-two-year old mechanical engineer born and raised in Anchorage, recently graduating from UAF in May 2014. With just six months of real world engineering application work, primarily building HVAC, plumbing, and energy modeling, Baumgartner has broadened his emerging expertise to alternative energy systems.

For solar photovoltaic cells client in 2014, Baumgartner and another professional engineer wrote a commissioning report on a PV system that was installed on the Coronado Senior Housing building in Eagle River. “The PV array there was designed to be a solar thermal system that would interact with the building’s primary heating system and provide complimentary and supplemental heat to the building,” Baumgartner delineated.

Baumgartner notes the other project, still in its early phases, is the housing unit on Lake Otis referenced by Jesse Moe. “PV cells are being utilized in this project to offset the total projected power consumption of these buildings. RSA worked up two different energy model/analysis of the building design on behalf of the building owner and the architect for the project. One energy model incorporated and took into account the reduction in energy usage on account of the PV cells and the other model did not,” says Baumgartner.

Baumgartner appreciates the teamwork approach to renewable energy projects in the state. He explains that Jesse Moe with Lime Solar helped size and estimate the cost of the PV arrays based on the information that RSA was able to generate with its energy models. “The primary goal for these energy models was to get alternative energy ‘points’ under the Alaska Building Energy Efficiency Standard, BEES, which is governed by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, AHFC, so that the owner could receive financial assistance for the construction of the project,” he says.

RSA was successfully able to provide an energy model that incorporated PV cells, among other alternative energy sources, such as geothermal, in such a way that AHFC found satisfactory. To that end, Baumgartner explained that PV cells have the capability to become an integral part of alternative energy generation throughout Alaska.

“As technology is advancing at an almost exponential rate, it is only a matter of time before PV [solar energy] turns into one of the most cost effective sources of alternative energy,” he adds.

 

Let the Sun Shine In—The Installation Phase

Davis Constructors & Engineers has been building in Alaska since 1976. In its more-than-thirty-eight years, the company has completed nearly three hundred projects. The residential, commercial, and government infrastructure it has constructed is valued at over $2.25 billion across Alaska. As one of the state’s largest general contractors, the Davis team recognizes the importance of understanding and becoming experts in renewable energy technology and applications.

Jed Shandy is a project engineer and principal at Davis. Shandy is overseeing the installation of solar panels alongside Lime Solar for the Cook Inlet Housing Authority project in Mountain View. The company is assessing inclusion of solar and thermal applications for a project on the University of Hawaii, Kona, campus. Davis is also considering solar applications for its new office complex in midtown Anchorage.

“Solar technology is a growing market that Davis is expanding our capabilities for and investing in to meet Alaskan’s needs,” says Shandy. “In fact, Davis’ new offices will have geothermal technology, and we’re evaluating a solar PV component in the building.”

Shandy is eager to see renewable energy technologies become more viable in the state. In conjunction with Alcan Electrical & Engineering as its electrical contractor, installation of basic to complex solar energy systems in Alaskan homes and businesses is a field that is wide open for companies targeting such niche in Alaska. Shandy and team are cognizant that training and education of Davis employees is what elevates their company’s value and credibility.

Despite the fact that only a few sizable solar arrays have been designed and installed for commercial application in Alaska in 2014, Shandy foresees a growing and comprehensive range of renewable energy systems, particularly solar-related, in the coming years.

 

Solar Makes a Difference

Renewable energy applications are diverse. As mankind recognizes the unsustainability of a purely fossil fuel technology to generate power and energy, resources like tidal water, wind, and solar power are a welcomed and increasingly popular alternative.

Alaska, in its geographic complexity and vastness, is surfacing as the treasure trove for renewable energy applications. Solar power is one such source of clean, consistent energy that keeps power charged and costs reduced.

As Lime Solar’s Jesse Moe and EIC Engineers’ Eric Cowling reflected, all solar projects are unique in our state. “It’s very rare to go 100 percent off the grid with solar or not have an electric bill whatsoever, but the opportunity to reduce one’s monthly and annual bill is tangible,” says Moe. Cowling added that “some reductions in cost are as little as 5 percent to 10 percent monthly, but if that’s off of a $20,000 per month electric bill, the impact is substantive for commercial properties.”

No matter the level of investment in solar technology in Alaska, there is clearly a ray of hope for growth in the industry. Benefits including a reduction in fossil fuel dependence, financial savings, and support of well-intended entrepreneurs who value alternative, clean energy are appearing project after project.

In the case of solar energy, the star power is making life and function a sustainable ecosystem we can all be part of and support in Alaska thanks to the designers, engineers, and construction professionals helping harness the power of our sun.

Tom Anderson writes from across Alaska.

This first appeared in the February 2015 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly magazine.

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