Large solar panel means 2 villages in Northwest Alaska can cut diesel power for hours a day

A new $2.2 million solar farm is generating electricity in two Alaskan villages above the Arctic Circle, where energy costs are among the highest in the state.

The 225 kilowatt project in Shungnak, Northwest Alaska is unusual because the tribal government of that village and nearby Kobuk owns the farm and will sell the electricity to the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, rural Alaska’s largest power company.

“This is the first time we’ve entered into a power purchase agreement with anyone,” said utility chief executive Bill Stamm. “We buy electricity from the community and that puts money back into the community.”

Electricity is used in Shungnak and Kobuk, connected to a power interconnection about 10 miles away. The communities have a total population of approximately 450 inhabitants. They are about 450 miles northwest of Anchorage.

The solar array was completed last fall, just as winter darkness was setting in.

Now, with the long spring days ahead, he is having his first real test. The solar farm produced so much electricity that it allowed the diesel-powered power plant to shut down for several hours a day, said Billy Lee, a Shungnak resident who serves on the Northwest Arctic’s energy committee. Borough, regional government. .

“Diesel generators were off for about seven hours yesterday and the other day with no fossil fuel burning,” Lee said Friday. “It’s great for us.”

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Few communities in Alaska have the option to shut down their diesel power plants and use only renewable energy, Stamm said. The opportunity to do so is expected to grow in the coming weeks as electricity demand plummets, temperatures warm and villagers move to subsistence camps for fishing and hunting, he said. he declared.

The project is expected to reduce diesel costs in the village by about $200,000 a year, eliminating the need for about 25,000 gallons of fuel, Stamm said.

This should lead to a slight drop in electricity prices and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by burning less diesel fuel, he said.

In another first for the utility, which operates nearly 50 power plants in rural Alaska, the project includes large batteries to store solar power for one to two hours after sunset, a- he declared.

The system uses a sophisticated controller to smoothly manage the system’s different power sources: battery, solar or diesel, he said.

“Those are the two things that have made this type of project more affordable and more manageable,” he said, referring to advances in battery power and the power management system.

The Shungnak solar panel is just one of many large commercial solar projects underway in Alaska, said Chris Rose of Renewable Energy Alaska Project, which advocates for more renewable energy.

Natural gas and diesel fuel are used to generate most electricity in Alaskan communities, but they are very expensive compared to the Lower 48, Rose said.

“People are looking at alternatives and realizing they can produce electricity cheaper than utilities,” he said.

Along Alaska’s Railroad Belt, in the state’s most populous region, private entities are pursuing large commercial solar projects both in Houston’s Matanuska-Susitna borough and on the Kenai Peninsula. , did he declare.

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Shungnak’s solar array can produce about a fifth of the power of a private solar farm installed in Willow in 2019, Stamm said.

Shungnak and Kobuk have some of the highest electricity prices in northwest Alaska and the United States, said Ingemar Mathiasson, energy manager for the borough.

A gallon of diesel fuel easily exceeds $10 a gallon when water levels drop on the Kobuk River and prevent fuel barges from reaching villages. When this happens, planes have to fly in relatively small diesel loads, which increases costs.

The new solar panel will offset annual diesel fuel consumption by more than 10%, possibly much more, Mathiasson said.

“We’ll see if we can get to 30%,” Mathiasson said.

The project is a partnership made up of many entities, including NANA Regional Corp., representing the Alaska Natives of the Northwest region, as well as the villages, officials involved in the project said.

The Department of Agriculture and the Denali Commission, a federal agency created to improve infrastructure in Alaska, provided much of the funding.

The borough has contributed about $400,000 through the Village Improvement Fund supported by a payment-in-lieu agreement with Teck, the operator of the Red Dog zinc mine in the area, Mathiasson said.

Mathiasson said the borough has set a goal to build solar installations for all 10 villages in the area outside of Kotzebue. The region’s hub city is home to rural Alaska’s largest solar array, owned by the Kotzebue Electric Association.

Next to receive a solar panel is Noatak, another village with high fuel prices, Mathiasson said.

Plans are underway to build a 275-kilowatt solar array in this northwest Alaskan community of 420, larger than Shungnak, he said.

The projects are important in part because they create local jobs, Mathiasson said.

Construction of the Noatak network should begin soon, he said, and it should be operational next summer.

“The idea is to harvest the energy when it’s there, like we do with our other resources, caribou and berries and everything else,” Mathiasson said.