Another Year of Renewable Energy Growth
Alaska remains a bastion for renewable and alternative energy
Alaska is a bastion for renewable and alternative energy sources statewide, and 2017 is set to meet or even surpass last year in terms of new project financing and construction.
Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) Executive Director Chris Rose says that his organization is focused on how to finance and maintain renewable energy projects in rural Alaska.
“The $257 million in grants the state made through the Renewable Energy Fund really jumpstarted the industry here in Alaska and made the state a world leader in putting renewable energy into remote diesel systems. Now we’re looking at how to keep the momentum created by the fund going,” says Rose.
According to the Alaska Energy Authority, the sixty-six projects built in part through fund money saved an estimated 30 million gallons of diesel fuel in 2016. Since state grant funds have been drastically diminished by the state’s revenue problems, Rose says Alaskans must find ways involve the private sector in financing renewable energy and energy efficiency across the state. One of the paths REAP is exploring is a state “green bank.”
“Green banks are quasi-state institutions that work to bring private investors into deals to finance clean energy projects. Since 2011, the Connecticut Green Bank has been highly successful in leveraging a relatively small amount of state money into large investments by private banks in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects in that state. REAP has been studying how Alaska might do the same thing,” says Rose.
REAP is also putting significant energy into how these remote “microgrids” are operated, maintained, and optimized. REAP recently hired a full-time employee to launch the Alaska Network for Energy Education and Employment.
“Without a trained and educated workforce, Alaska will be missing out on opportunities to both get the most out of the projects we build in the state and continue to build a new energy sector that can provide good, well-paying jobs that contribute a slice of the state’s future economy,” adds Rose.
For similar reasons, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power at the University of Alaska Fairbanks recently launched the Arctic Remote Energy Networks Academy (ARENA). Rose says, “[ARENA] is another way Alaskans are working to keep our leadership position in the development of remote microgrids. In Alaska, we have about 60,000 people making electricity with diesel, and all of them want to decrease their dependence on imported diesel and keep precious dollars in their communities. But across the planet there are an estimated 700 million people who rely on diesel. That’s a big market worth focusing on.”
REAP is also working to ensure that more renewable energy is installed in the Railbelt. “For the last three years we’ve been working with various stakeholders in our coalition of over eighty organizations to get an independent system operator established in the Railbelt [to] centralize the dispatch of electricity for the entire region, making it easier to integrate electrons from sources like wind and solar. It would also create regional planning mechanisms so additions of renewable energy to the grid are something we plan for years ahead of time. Today, it’s pretty difficult for an independent renewable power producer to sell into the Railbelt grid. There are six utilities and very few clear market rules. If we’re going to use renewable energy to hedge against the inevitable volatility of natural gas prices, the region needs to work together more closely,” notes Rose.
Let there be Lime! Lime Solar, That Is
Lime Solar is one of Alaska’s premier renewable energy companies. Owner and co-founder Chester Dyson explains the company has grown steadily because of Alaska’s affinity for new and clean energy sources. Headquartered in Anchorage, the company operates statewide with seven employees, including a journeyman electrician, two installers, and sales personnel with deep knowledge of alternative energy applications.
Lime Solar’s primary technologies are solar applications. Solar cells, also known as photovoltaic (PV) cells, convert sunlight directly into electricity. PV gets its name from the process of converting light (photons) to electricity (voltage), which is called the “PV effect.”
Some projects on the horizon for Dyson and team include Grass Creek North, a Cook Inlet Housing Authority contemporary-housing project located off of Muldoon Road, north of Fred Meyer, in Anchorage. The project consists of eleven buildings for which Lime Solar will provide and install a solar PV system of 83.4 kW and fifty-one solar thermal panels.
In Southeast Alaska, the Volunteers of America—Alaska Chapter is building a Juneau housing project, and a Lime Solar crew is installing what will result in Juneau’s largest solar array at 18.3 kW. Also this year, the company is preparing to break ground in Kodiak on a four-building project with 15 kW of solar and eleven solar thermal panels.
Vista Rose is another project under construction. Solar panels have already been installed on the building and were wired in April. The Valley Residential Services’ website notes, Vista Rose Senior Apartments is under construction by The Pacific Companies on Lucille Street in Wasilla. The project will house seventy-eight units, constructed in two phases, with a plan to open the initial forty-two units by August 2017.
Dyson points out that the Vista Rose project is nearly three times larger than any other solar array on Matanuska Electric Association’s (MEA) grid, coming in at 31.2 kW. Phase 2 of the project will boast a solar array of 28.2 kW and a solar thermal array comprised of twenty-seven solar thermal panels.
Brent Linegar, owner of Sage Mechanical, says his company focuses on customer service and installation of renewable energy systems. “Our customers can talk directly to one of the owners of the company 24/7… We are a fully licensed plumbing, electrical, and HVAC contractor. The majority of our work is commercial in nature, but we also perform a lot of new residential construction, remodels, and service,” he says.
Sage has eleven employees with plans to hire three more in the early summer. Sage’s staff is composed of journeymen plumbers, electricians, and sheet metal experts. It also offers an ABC apprenticeship program.
This year Sage is partnering with Lime Solar to install solar thermal and PV panels at its Kodiak project, as well as in west Anchorage in the Turnagain neighborhood, among other smaller solar installs. “I have found that renewable energy in Alaska can be cost effective and reliable if applied correctly,” says Linegar. “Every commercial building, house, and cabin from downtown Anchorage to Fairbanks can benefit financially while lowering emissions and keeping Alaska as beautiful as ever.”
Susitna Energy Systems
Kirk Garoutte’s vision is to help Alaskans produce and maintain energy while keeping costs down and longevity in mind. He started Susitna Energy Systems eighteen years ago and has been selling and installing renewable energy projects across Alaska ever since.
Headquartered in Anchorage, with a large sales department and showroom full of modern renewable energy technology, Garoutte says, “Our focus really is to help Alaskans who are off the electrical grid survive Alaska’s environment and seasons. We sell, install, and repair everything someone needs to live off grid, which includes solar panels, wind turbines, appliances, telecommunications, lighting, heating, and generators.”
When asked about projects and where he and his team have worked, he smiles and responds, “A lot of places, urban and remote, throughout the state.” He adds that the company’s specialty and niche remains village and remote cabin renewable energy applications.
“We have assessed and helped install numerous solar and wind systems for cabin owners, lodges, and villages. Off grid and grid-tied wind and solar applications for residences in less remote areas of the state are also increasing,” he says.
Renewable Energy Systems
Renewable Energy Systems (RES) is another powerhouse in the Alaska renewable energy market. In business for more than fourteen years, and with offices in Anchorage, Wasilla, and Fairbanks, the company’s staff includes North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners-certified Sales and PV installation experts, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and highly trained installation crews.
The company covers the spectrum of renewable energy sources. “RES has a combined forty-five years of experience in designing and installing solar PV, solar thermal, hydro power, telecommunications, wind, and home and commercial backup systems all over Alaska and the Lower 48,” says Fairbanks Store Manager and Design Engineer Edward Davidson. “We offer complete site assessment, design, installation, [and] commissioning for all systems. RES also offers training classes on all aspects of Renewable Energy,” he adds.
In 2017, RES has projects planned across Alaska including in Anchorage, Bethel, Cake, Fairbanks, Juneau, and Togiak, among a number of remote areas. More than 200 kW of solar infrastructure is scheduled for installation during the short Alaska season.
Davidson says most installations are designed to offset cost of power that ranges from $0.14 per kW/hour to more than $1.00 per kW/hour, which is ten times the national average. He says several installations are intended to provide solar pumping for agricultural village projects, while others will reduce thousands of gallons of diesel required in remote areas that have historically run generators 24/7, year-round.
RES works with many private home owners, municipal and borough governments, and commercial businesses.
“Solar is a great investment with a guaranteed return of 10 to 15 percent annually,” adds Davidson. “Alaska does not have any rebates or incentives for Renewable Energy, but currently there is a 30 percent federal solar tax credit available that is set to expire in the near future.”
No End in Sight for Alaskan Renewable Energy Projects
The continued growth and expansion of alternative energy applications in all regions of the state is indicative of a prosperous commercial climate for harnessing renewable energy.
“Alaska is on the cutting edge of the renewable energy boon because of the size of the state, interest in modern technologies, and urgency for efficient energy that people can afford,” says Dyson. “I feel blessed that we’ve been able to grow in five short years to such a broad range of geographic clients, with the largest residential solar installs from Anchorage to Juneau.”
Indeed, with visionaries like Dyson and his colleagues on the renewable energy front, Alaska is sure to be a bright spot and example for clean, efficient, and continuous power growth.
Tom Anderson writes from across Alaska.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.