Large solar array means 2 Northwest Alaska villages can turn off diesel power for hours a day

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May 22—A new $2.2 million solar farm is generating power in two Alaska villages above the Arctic Circle, where energy costs are among the highest in the state.

The 225-kilowatt project in Shungnak, in Northwest Alaska, is unusual because the tribal government in that village and in nearby Kobuk own the farm and will sell the power to the Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, the largest electric utility in rural Alaska.

"This is the first time we entered into a power purchase agreement with anyone," said Bill Stamm, the chief executive for the utility. "We buy the power from the community and it's putting money back into the community."

The power is used in Shungnak and in Kobuk, connected with an electrical intertie about 10 miles away. The communities have a total population of about 450 residents. They're about 450 miles northwest of Anchorage.

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

Now, with long spring days afoot, it's getting its first real test. The solar farm has been producing so much power that it has allowed the diesel-fed power plant to shut down for several hours a day, said Billy Lee, a Shungnak resident who serves on the energy committee for the Northwest Arctic Borough, the regional government.

"The diesel generators were off for about seven hours yesterday and the other day, with no burning of fossil fuels," Lee said on Friday. "It's great for us."

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Not many communities in Alaska have the ability to shut down their diesel power plants and use only renewable power, Stamm said. The opportunity to do so should grow in the coming weeks as power demand falls, as temperatures warm and village residents travel to subsistence camps for fishing and hunting, he said.

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

It's expected to lead to slightly lower electricity prices and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by burning less diesel fuel, he said.

In another first for the utility, which operates close to 50 power plants in rural Alaska, the project includes large batteries to store the solar power for one to two hours after the sun goes down, he said.

The system uses a sophisticated controller to smoothly manage the differing sources of power on the system: battery, solar or diesel, he said.

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

The solar array in Shungnak is just one of several large commercial solar projects underway in Alaska, said Chris Rose with Renewable Energy Alaska Project, which advocates for more renewable power.

Natural gas and diesel fuel are used to make most of the electricity in Alaska's communities, but they are very expensive compared to the Lower 48, Rose said.

"People are looking at the alternatives and realizing they can generate power cheaper than utilities," he said.

Along the Alaska Railbelt in the state's most populated region, private entities are pursuing large commercial solar projects in both Houston in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and on the Kenai Peninsula, he said.

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The Shungnak solar array can produce about one-fifth of the power of a privately owned solar farm installed in Willow in 2019, Stamm said.

Shungnak and Kobuk have some of the highest electricity prices in Northwest Alaska and in the U.S., said Ingemar Mathiasson, the 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 the villages. When that happens, planes must fly in relatively small loads of diesel, adding to costs.

The new solar array will offset annual diesel fuel use by more than 10%, possibly much higher, 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 Alaska Natives from 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 contributed about $400,000 through the village improvement fund supported by a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with Teck, the operator of the Red Dog zinc mine in the region, Mathiasson said.

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

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

Plans are underway to build a 275-kilowatt solar array in that Northwest Alaska community of 420, larger than the one in Shungnak, he said.

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

Construction for the Noatak array should begin soon, he said, and it should be operating next summer.

"The idea is to harvest energy when it's there, like we do with our other resources, caribou and berries and everything else out there," Mathiasson said.