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Naknek augments power supply with new solar array

Dave Bendinger/ KDLG

A solar power project in Naknek aims to demonstrate that solar power is a cost-effective option in rural Alaska.

In the search for cheap, renewable sources of energy to power rural Alaska, solar seems to have rarely gotten a look. Ample rivers, waterfalls and wind spin electricity generating turbines, but power from the sun? "Alaska's high latitude presents the challenge of having minimal solar energy during long winter months when the energy demand is the greatest," says the Alaska Energy Authority. But solar panel technology is constantly improving, and one small company set up an array in Naknek this year to prove it can work. KDLG's Avery Lill has more.

Audio Transcript:

Alternative energy projects dot the landscape of rural Alaska, each marking hope of a cheaper, cleaner solution to burning diesel. Hydropower in Newhalen and Chignik Lagoon has proven successful. Wind turbines in Kokhanok and geothermal in Naknek have not. Igiugig is exploring river power, and Naknek is now turning to the sun.

CapStone Solutions developed and installed what is currently the largest solar array in Alaska. The 80.08 Kw array sits in the tundra near Pederson Point.

David Nicol, CapStone's director of solar development, says it was a rough road to completion.

“I proposed a much larger system for the utility,” says Nicol. “I was initially turned down. The school asked if we were interested in selling that same project on the school, and we were. And we installed it, thinking we had a path to permitting. And it turns out we didn’t.”

When Capstone ran into permitting issues with their project for the Bristol Bay Borough School District, they sold the array to Naknek Electric Association.

“We decided we wanted to keep this thing up there anyway and keep it installed because it would still fulfill our original purpose. And so we offered to sell it just to recoup our costs not to necessarily make a profit.” Nicol explains, “The original purpose was to just to prove that it could be done Alaska for a reasonable amount of money.”

The solar array has been operating for about two months now, and Nicol says that it is performing better than expected.

“So in 45 days it produced about two months and four days’ worth of power. And quite of bit of that was in October, which is from our standpoint really good. If it’s doing that well in the winter, it will do really well in the summer.”

This is the first place Capstone has built a solar array in rural Alaska. Nicol sees several key reasons to develop renewable energy technology in the region. One of those is to offset the use of diesel fuel.

“But the other big reason,” says Nicol, “is that my family homesteaded actually pretty close to Kokanhok, Alaska. And, you know, working up in the fisheries in Alaska…I see the impact of high cost of power and heat on the villages.”

He sees young people leaving villages due to the high cost of living.

“I think that the way of life that the villages have is important. And I want to make it so people can afford to live there in relative comfort, and so I think renewable energy is kind of a critical component of that.”

The array in Naknek isn’t large enough to make a big dent in the cost of energy for residents. But it is working. Nicol estimates that it will offset 3500 to 4500 gallons of diesel annually. Capstone is hoping the Naknek array will demonstrate that solar power is a viable option in other villages.

Nanci Morris-Lyon is President of the Board of Naknek Electric Association. She says that installing the solar array is a good move both environmentally and economically

“A lot of it has to do with a conscious effort to reduce the carbon footprint that one’s leaving behind. And the other portion of it is just to see if we can’t find ways to ease the burden of the high cost of power out in bush Alaska. I think it’s beneficial for Naknek Electric to be doing, and I thought it was beneficial for myself to do as a lodge owner as well.”

Morris-Lyon has some previous experience with solar energy. She has one of the largest small solar arrays in the area installed at her lodge. She says it’s helped her power bill for the past couple of years, and she anticipates Naknek Electric Association members will also save some money.

If solar power is a success in Naknek, then Capstone Solutions wants to expand their solar projects in Alaska. They are in talks with three other villages, and they hope to begin construction in the spring.

Credit Dave Bendinger/ KDLG

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