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Solar Power Is for Cold Climates, Too

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Energy & Environment
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The warm, sunny southwestern U.S. is a hotspot for solar power, but businesses in chillier, gloomier regions can also benefit from the switch to renewable energy. That’s especially true for companies in remote areas, where fossil fuels are more expensive. With the cost of solar panels continuing to fall, a clean tech makeover can cut carbon emissions while saving money, too.

Solar power in Alaska?

Alaska has become the epicenter of important environmental battles over the use of fossil fuels, including wildlife conservation and climate change.

Until recently, though, it seemed that Alaska’s residents and businesses had little opportunity to participate in the renewable energy transition, considering its cold climate and far-flung villages.

Nevertheless, Alaska has become a test bed for the financial benefits of small scale, local solar power.

One such project is getting under way this month in the village of Ambler, population 287, located near Kobuk Valley National Park (shown above).

Ambler is located 45 miles north of the Arctic Circle, in the Northwest Arctic Borough. Access is primarily by barge, plane, small boat and snowmachine.

At first glance, the region may not seem ideal for solar power. Though total precipitation is relatively low at 9 inches per year, that includes an average of 47 inches of snow.

Still, about 70 homes in Ambler are being fitted out with their own solar arrays this year.

Yes, solar power in Alaska!

With a capacity of 1 kilowatt each, the new household solar arrays are miniscule. However, they will have an outsized impact on energy consumption in the village.

The solar arrays are just part of a broader energy efficiency initiative for Ambler. Each home is also getting new LED lights and a heat pump.

With the help of solar power during the day, the heat pumps can work without drawing electricity from the local grid.

The heat pumps will be operated only part of the year, when the temperature is above zero degrees Fahrenheit. However, that is enough to realize significant savings.

The combination of heat pumps, LEDs, and solar arrays cost each home about $8,200. The annual fuel saving per home is expected to range from $2,000 to $3,000, meaning that the systems will pay for themselves in just a few years.

Cleaner and safer

Aside from the financial benefits, the Ambler solar power project also involves public health improvements.

Alaska Public Media recently took a look at a home in Ambler that has pilot-tested the system over the past two years and noted that the heat pumps can be used to filter indoor air. That’s an important improvement for homes that rely on wood stoves for heating.

The heat pumps can also provide filtration for outdoor air, a significant benefit for communities like Ambler with dusty, unpaved roads.

Overall comfort is another consideration. By reducing the financial pressure on household energy bills, the solar panels enable residents to keep indoor temperatures at a more healthful level.

As for the impact of Ambler’s cold, snowy climate on solar panel output, researchers are beginning to accumulate evidence that solar panels can function more efficiently in cold weather. Snow can help by reflecting additional light onto the solar panels, too.

Big plans for small scale solar

On the other end of the scale, the largest solar array in Alaska began construction earlier this year at the village of Hughes, 210 miles from Fairbanks by air.

The U.S. Department of Energy is supporting the project, which consists of a 120-kilowatt solar array this year and an equal amount of energy storage. The system will integrate with the local grid to help cut overall power costs.

Hughes (population 110), currently uses more than 40,000 gallons of diesel annually to generate electricity for the community, all of which is transported on aging planes that date back to the 1950’s — which involves using even more fossil fuel.

With those costs involved, it’s little wonder that the residents of Hughes pay more than 70 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity.

By producing some of its electricity through local solar energy, the village will cut its costs while reducing carbon emissions from diesel fuel. It will also reduce emissions related to fuel transportation as well.

Although the system is tiny compared to the utility-scale arrays elsewhere in the U.S., it will save about $54,000 annually over its 20-year lifespan. That will go a long way in Hughes.

As the Hughes and Ambler projects demonstrate, location does not have to be an obstacle for businesses seeking solar power and other sources of clean technologies. Even if renewable energy is available only part-time, it can still make a big difference in overall energy costs and carbon emissions.

A corollary to that is the opportunity for businesses to enter new markets in remote locations — or any location, for that matter — by taking advantage of the falling cost of renewable energy.

Image credit: LCGS Russ/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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