Wilderness resort installs large solar array outside Denali National Park

Camp Denali solar array. (courtesy Camp Denali)

A large solar array was quietly installed in the wilderness at the edge of Denali National Park over the last two summers. The remote system is drawing recognition from solar and renewable energy analysts because it could generate 90 kilowatts and power a small ecotourism resort called Camp Denali.

Conditions were perfect in the spring of 2019 for Camp Denali to start building the array. There was very little snow, and the ground was still frozen.

Trucks carried the photovoltaic panels along the 92-mile Park Road along with all the electronics that go with them — and 18 21-foot steel piles to be driven into the ground.

Simon Hamm runs the 70-year old resort with his wife, Jenna. It has 20 cabins and lodge buildings spread out over 67 acres.

“Our aim was to entirely power a commercial operation. The 16 panels times 18 arrays works out to 288 panels, and it’s capacity is about 90 kilowatts,” Hamm said.

The impressive remote solar spread took two summers to install. The panels and electronics were designed and hooked up by Greg Egan of Remote Power.

18 tracking solar arrays make up the 90KW electricity-generating system at Camp Denali, 92 miles down the Denali National Park Road. (courtesy of Camp Denali)

“It is a cool project,” Egan said. “It is a big, complicated system. It’s the biggest I’ve worked on for a long time.”

Egan built up the equipment and bench-tested it in his Fairbanks shop before bringing it down and through the park.

He was impressed at the environmental standards the Hamms worked to.

“They really wanted to take care of the taiga,” Egan said. “50 years ago, maybe 60 years ago, the original homesteaders, they drug a big tree across the tundra there, and there’s a 4-foot ditch there. Because they squashed, you know, the memory foam. They damaged it, and it doesn’t come back.”

A mobile rig from Denali Drilling out of Anchorage came to the site to drill 18 holes for the support stands that hold the arrays. But bringing a piece of heavy equipment to the wilderness took some planning, Hamm says, and a lot of hand work.

“We made things harder on ourselves, in the stewardship piece,” he said. “We didn’t want the tundra all ripped up. Back-breaking effort by our staff, our crew of Camp Denali, to lay protective mat on top of tundra, replace tundra manually, by hand any time that it got disturbed in the slightest. Proud to say that it’s hard to tell that there’s been a drill rig out there.”

As work went along in the summer of 2019, it was time to bring in the nickel-iron batteries, which can withstand being left dormant in low winter temperatures.

“Our batteries weigh about 18,000 pounds,” Hamm said. “They arrived to the park entrance the day after the subsidence at Pretty Rocks closed the park road for 2019.”

The slipping road surface caused the NPS to close the road in August, and that meant a halt to some of the work at Camp Denali that year. Then in 2020, the pandemic hit. That meant canceling all the reservations, and laying off some of the 50 staff members that run the camp.

But it also meant finishing the solar installation without disturbing any guests.

“Because we weren’t doing guest operations, we could focus pretty exclusively on projects, including getting the solar much farther along,” Hamm said.

The installation has drawn the attention of renewable energy organizations in Alaska and Outside. In 2021, the system will have a chance to prove what it can do.

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