Solar energy has become so accessible that new farms are being switched on in the most unexpected places - including in the depths of the Alaskan winter.

by on 24-02-2020 in USA, Alaska, Solar Farm

The temperature gauge on my car reads a frosty -16C (3F) as I pull off the highway and onto the side road next to the Willow solar farm, about 50 miles north of Anchorage, Alaska. The panels, ice-covered behemoths that rise starkly against the still-dark sky, are incongruous sight in the snowy landscape. And considering that the sun is just peeking over the mountains at 9:00am, it also feels like a highly impractical venture. Standing in the middle of the farm, freezing cold, slipping on the ice, it is not what you expect when visiting the largest and newest solar farm in the state.

In northerly regions like Alaska, where daylight hours are minimal for a good portion of the year, the use of solar power seems improbable, if not impossible. Nearly 85% of land in the state has at least some level of permafrost and even in the southern regions, winter months receive minimal daylight. But this solar farm in Willow, is one of those proving that solar can work even in the most unexpected cold and northerly climates.

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Sited a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle, the Willow farm gets less than six hours of daylight during the winter months. In January, the Alaskan solar company Renewable IPP switched this 10-acre farm on, making it the largest in the state. Its output is expected to be 1.35 megawatt hours per year – enough to provide power for about 120 average homes year-round. The farm is made up of 11 rows of panels, nine 133 kW rows and two smaller 70kW rows that were the farm’s pilot project.

The pace of climate change in the Arctic and its surroundings is much greater than other parts of the world, leading to an urgent need to reduce the use of fossil fuels and expand renewable energy options. Renewable’s four founding business partners met while working in Alaska’s oil industry. The four shared a mutual interest in renewable energy, with some of them having experimented with DIY solar projects at home. After generating power for their own homes, they wanted to find a way to expand solar within the state.

“We chose to go with a utility scale solar project, as we felt that would provide the biggest impact,” says Jenn Miller, chief executive of Renewable. “We got out and drove piles and built frames, which was great because we were able to learn a lot, figure out potential design problems and make changes to create the most efficient model possible.”
Solar viability is a function of two things: solar resource and electricity prices – Jenn Miller
Their pilot project of two rows of 70 kW panels suggested that the farm would work on a larger scale. The first rows went in during the summer of 2018, and after eight months, the costs came in on target, says Chris Colbert, chief finance officer of Renewable. “We monitored production throughout the year, which also came in on target,” he says. That made it easier for them to get the attention of investors to allow them to expand.

“Solar viability is a function of two things: solar resource and electricity prices,” says Miller. Alaska’s electricity prices are almost double the US average, creating a great deal of interest in alternative technologies. And, perhaps surprisingly, on average Alaska is a sunny place.

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