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Same Sun, Superior Science

Dec 1, 2018Energy

An Anchorage residence gains power from the sun through a solar power array.

Arctic Solar Ventures

Julie Stricker
Julie Stricker
Julie Stricker is a journalist living near Fairbanks.

When Alex Papasavas started her restaurant, Turkey Red, in Palmer a decade ago, her goal was to locally-source as much meat and produce as she could.

Better tech makes renewable energy systems more affordable

Papasavas and her staff of thirty-four make nearly all of their main dishes, desserts, bread, and mozzarella from products grown or raised within the Mat-Su region. “I planned the restaurant to where we reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible,” she says. “The food industry is one of the most polluting industries on our planet because everyone has to eat.”

The next step was turning to renewable energy.

“I have at least ten refrigerated units, a lot of cooking equipment,” Papasavas says. “We just use a lot of energy. We recycle here. We have LED lights. I have my refrigerator units serviced quarterly. I feel like it’s so important right now for everyone to do whatever they can to reduce our carbon footprint.”

In December 2017, a solar energy system that consists of forty panels on the roof of Turkey Red went online with help from Anchorage-based Arctic Solar Ventures. So far, the panels have generated up to 100 kilowatts in a day, more than one-third of the restaurant’s daily energy usage of 230 kilowatts. Papasavas says she was able to get tax credits and a grant to pay for a portion of the project and expects it to pay for itself in less than eight years.

The Solar Balance

That kind of calculation is becoming more common in Alaska, as residents weigh the costs and benefits of renewable energy, especially solar, for their homes and businesses, says Stephen Trimble, who founded and co-owns Arctic Solar Ventures with his wife, Jacqueline Savina.

Solar power is an underserved and emerging market in Alaska, Trimble says. He started the company in 2015 and specializes in grid-connected solar and battery solutions, with projects located from Homer to Talkeetna.

Residential solar power is a quickly growing business in Alaska, which many people find curious because of the state’s reputation for long, dark winters, Trimble says.

Much of this growth is due to decreases in the cost of solar equipment globally, which reduces the amount of time it takes for a homeowner to break even on project costs.

“Solar in Alaska is interesting,” he says. “We don’t produce power at a very steady rate over the course of a year. It’s obviously more seasonal than in other parts of the United States.”

Trimble says his first mission is to let customers know that solar does work in Alaska. While the disparity between the summer and winter months is obvious, over the course of a year it tends to balance out. Alaska net metering laws help balance the costs, he says.

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October 2019

Workers install solar panels on a residence in Anchorage.

Arctic Solar Ventures

In 2009, the Regulatory Commission of Alaska approved net metering regulations, which went into the effect the following year. These rules allow a customer to install and use certain types of renewable energy while connected to the grid. They can use the renewable energy to offset their monthly energy use and sell any excess power to the utility, which uses it to supply other customers. Homeowners can get credits on their monthly bills during periods of high generation and use those credits to offset costs during the winter months.

Trimble says a typical residential solar setup can cost about $20,000, but tax credits and grants can offset some of the initial costs.

“Typically, we can provide anywhere from 75 to 100 percent of a home’s annual energy with solar in Alaska, which is pretty amazing,” he says. “Most people don’t think we have that much of a resource here.”

Current tax credits, which expire at the end of 2019, can cover up to 30 percent of the initial investment.

“We see solar pay for itself on a home typically between nine and ten years,” he says. “That’s a good solar payback for pretty much anywhere.”

Improvements in Tech

In Homer, veterinarian Dorothy Sherwood turned on a new solar system at her clinic on winter solstice last year, “So the only way was upward from then!” she says. She also has a solar system installed at her home.

The system at her clinic includes two arrays and twenty-two microinverters. To date, it has produced 5.8 megawatt-hours of electricity.

“I wanted to reduce my clinic’s dependence on non-sustainable energy systems, which would not only reduce the clinic’s carbon footprint but ‘walk the walk’ when addressing my concerns regarding climate disruption/change,” Sherwood says. “I think the advantages of solar energy are widely understood… low carbon footprint/reliable source of energy for a large portion of the year, clean energy at installation, and providing business to local solar energy businesses.”

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Arctic Solar Ventures installed solar panels on the roof of this office building located at 880 H Street in downtown Anchorage.

Arctic Solar Ventures

Sherwood also used a grant from the Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) to help offset the initial costs.

Sherwood says a second system at her home includes ten arrays plus microconverters.

“We have worked on creating our home to be as energy efficient as possible over the years, and our monthly electric bill before solar is averaging $80 with two teenage sons in our home,” she says. “We look forward to seeing how solar will provide for our needs into 2019.”

Technology improvements in the past decade are another reason solar and renewable energy is taking off in Alaska, Trimble says. Today’s solar arrays have no moving parts, unlike past systems that required solar sensors that would move the array during the day as the sun passed overhead.

Solar panel efficiencies and capacities have gone up in recent years, and the tracking mechanisms are no longer needed, Trimble says.

“It’s cheaper to add a few more stationary, no-moving-parts panels than to add a tracking mechanism that will require replacement in a few years.”

Battery technology also has improved. Trimble uses lithium-ion batteries in grid-connected solar systems. The batteries can provide power in times of outages or low generation.

“Instead of having a gas generator, you have a battery that is charged from your solar array from excess solar energy,” he says. “That’s a pretty unique concept for Alaskans. It’s basically a generator that’s rechargeable from an unlimited energy source.”

Until recently, battery systems were less stable and required ventilation. Today’s batteries are similar to the batteries used in cell phones, which can be tucked away and don’t require any special handling.

Veterinarian Dorothy Sherwood installed solar panels at her clinic and her home to reduce both locations’ carbon footprint.

Arctic Solar Ventures

Another advance is the use of module or panel power technologies. In the past, solar panels would be hooked up to an inverter. Since solar produces direct current, the inverter changes it to alternating current, which is what common electronics use. But if one of the panels was blocked, the whole array would go dark.

Today, with the advent of module/panel power level electronics, a device goes under each panel that regulates its power production independently of the others. If a panel is blocked, the other panels will continue to produce power.

“That’s been a really big change for enabling solar power in areas that tend to be more cloudy,” Trimble says. “The technology has also matured a lot since it was introduced—there used to be a lot of equipment failures. Now technologies are very robust and the equipment is warrantied for twenty-five years.”

Trimble says he has installed more than 4,000 devices and none have failed.

And solar isn’t the only renewable energy option for Alaskans.

Wind, Biomass, and Heat Pumps

In rural Alaska, wind farms have sprung up in many villages, reducing their reliance on expensive diesel systems. In Buckland, a large solar array just went online, boosting the village’s wind and diesel systems. In Tanana and Tok, biomass systems are producing energy for schools and village facilities. All of these systems are scaled to work in villages with a few hundred to thousands of residents, says Chris Rose, REAP’s founder and executive director. Rose is looking at a different technology, an air-source heat pump, which works as a kind of “reverse air conditioner” to provide heat for individual homes. It takes outside air and condenses it, which creates heat.

“That’s not renewable energy, but it’s technology that’s super-efficient,” Rose says. “People as far north as the Arctic Circle are now using it. These devices now are so efficient that one unit of electricity that you use to run the pump is getting four units of heat out at certain temperatures.

“The colder it gets, the lower that ratio is, until you get to a one-to-one ratio and it’s no longer doing you any good as a heat pump.”

Heat pumps are fairly ubiquitous in the Lower 48, Rose says, and even in Southeast Alaska. Now people in Southcentral are discovering that they make sense for them. There’s even a homeowner in Shungnak, above the Arctic Circle, who’s using it.

“The owner says, ‘This is still worth it to me because I can use it a couple of months in the spring and a couple months in the fall when it’s not too cold yet, and in those four months I would have burned so much heating fuel that I’m paying for this device in two and a half years,’” Rose says. “In Southeast Alaska, you can use a heat pump like that year-round, and it’s a much better choice than heating oil.”

It works economically in places with lower electricity costs. In Southeast Alaska, electricity costs are low because of hydropower, but heating costs remain high because of the use of heating oil. In Shungnak, the price of electricity is subsidized through Alaska’s Power Cost Equalization program and the cost of heating oil is so high that the economics still work, Rose says.

“One of the things that we try to emphasize is that heating is the biggest part of most people’s energy budget in the state of Alaska,” he says. “And efficiency is the number one thing we should all be doing.”

Homeowners can buy more efficient appliances such as refrigerators, update old heating systems, tighten up their homes, and use LED lights.

“These things are no-brainers,” Rose says.

Another benefit of renewable energy for the homeowner is that once the system is installed, costs do not fluctuate, unlike the cost of fuel oil and natural gas, which can be volatile, Rose says. And in communities in which residents are putting excess generation back into the grid, it’s a boon for the utilities, who are receiving clean energy from systems they don’t have to operate or maintain.

“It’s a really sort of unique and exciting emerging market opportunity,” Trimble says. “Solar in the Railbelt, it’s more of a nice thing to have than a necessity in a lot of ways, but it’s really opening people’s eyes as to where their energy comes from.

“I think it speaks to the resiliency of the Last Frontier experience for Alaskans. They enjoy being able to choose where their energy comes from and like producing it themselves. It speaks to the culture of self-reliance for Alaskans.”

Alaska Business Magazine October 2019

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