Alaska’s largest rural solar project set to break ground in Kotzebue

A group of visitors stands next to three new solar arrays in the Northwest Alaska village of Buckland, Oct. 15, 2018. The city of Kotzebue, 75 miles northwest of Buckland, plans to install the largest solar project in rural Alaska, and second statewide to the 1.2-megawatt solar farm in Willow. (Photo by Nat Herz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The high costs of diesel fuel to power energy grids has led a lot of rural utilities to offset with more renewable energy. The city of Kotzebue has used wind power for decades to supplement its fuel use, and now it’s about to break ground on a brand new solar project.

Martin Shroyer is the general manager for Kotzebue Electric Association, or KEA, the city’s local electric utility. He said renewable energy is nothing new in Kotzebue.

“It’s been the model since the mid-90s,” Shroyer said. “We were the first wind farm above the Arctic Circle.”

The new solar project will take the place of those older turbines, which Shroyer said are much more expensive to maintain.

“They’re obsolete,” Shroyer said. “They’re hard to get parts and hard to maintain right now, so the solar will help replace some of the energy they generated.”

The 576-kilowatt project will involve the installation of more than 1,400 solar panels in Kotzebue, generating an estimated 700,000 kilowatt-hours or more of power per year. The dual-sided panels will even be able to capture solar power from light reflected off of snow.

It will be the largest solar project in rural Alaska, and second statewide to the 1.2-megawatt solar farm in Willow.

Generating power in rural Alaska is largely driven by diesel fuel, which can be expensive to ship to communities off the road system, like Kotzebue. Shroyer said the city has focused on increasing renewables to keep costs lower. He said while the electric rate for KEA customers would stay the same, they should see a decrease in their fuel cost adjustment.

Kotzebue receives a lot more wind annually than sunlight, which only is reliable for about seven months of the year. Despite that, KEA engineer Matt Bergan said due to the relative installation ease and lower cost of the solar panels, they end up being more cost-effective.

“The energy output from a 60-kilowatt solar array is going to be less annually than a 60-kilowatt wind turbine for our location,” Bergan said. “However, the cost for operations and maintenance for the solar array will be quite a bit less than the wind turbine.”

The new solar project should make Kotzebue about 50%-powered by renewable energy. Bergan said that wind power in Kotzebue isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and KEA will be utilizing a mix of solar and their newer, more powerful 900-kilowatt wind turbines.

“Installation of those turbines is a rather expensive undertaking, but the amount of energy production and reliability is quite high,” Bergan said. “We see solar as a way to utilize some of our older wind infrastructure, so we’re essentially decommissioning wind and adding solar.”

Alaska Native Renewable Industries, or ANRI, is the general contractor for the solar project. ANRI founder Edwin Bifelt grew up in the western Interior village of Huslia. He said he felt disappointed with how projects were built in rural communities.

“You know, a lot of times you’d see contractors based in Fairbanks or Anchorage,” Bifelt said. “And it’s always kind of challenging, because they come in, they bring in a lot of their own labor and it was always kind of tough for me to see that.”

ANRI focuses on hiring locals for their installation projects. In a recent project in the village of Hughes, Bifelt said the only people not from the community were himself and his electrical administrator.

Construction on the Kotzebue solar project is set to begin at the end of February, with a completion date in April. ANRI is currently looking for 20 temporary local hires, in addition to the people already working at KEA.

Bifelt said they hope to continue their rural solar efforts with a new bid on a solar project in the Northwest Arctic village of Shungnak.

Editor’s note: Matt Bergan, the KEA engineer quoted in this story, serves on KOTZ’s Community Advisory Board. Alaska’s Energy Desk reporter Wesley Early reports for KOTZ.

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