Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
December 2017

Vol. 22, No. 52 Week of December 24, 2017

A community concept for solar power

Chugach Electric says a majority of its members surveyed expressed an interest in obtaining electricity from planned facility

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

A new solar power project that Chugach Electric Association is planning will have the solar system located in one place and centrally managed, so that people will be able to obtain solar power without the hassle or possible impracticalities of installing solar panels on their own roofs, Sean Skaling, manager of business and sustainable program development for Chugach Electric Association, has told Petroleum News.

“We’ve heard from our members that they’re interested in solar and so we’ve responded to that by looking into installing a community solar project,” Skaling said.

500-kilowatt facility

The project will involve the construction of a 500-kilowatt commercial scale solar energy farm on the east side of Minnesota Drive in Anchorage, near Chugach Electric’s headquarters. The utility will invite its residential and commercial members to buy shares in the farm, with electricity from the farm being allocated to share owners in proportion to the number of shares owned. A total of 500 shares will be offered, with each share providing entitlement to one-five-hundredth of the facility’s total output over a 25-year period.

Chugach Electric anticipates the solar farm producing about 550 megawatts of power annually, an amount roughly equivalent to 15 percent of the power consumption of 500 homes, Skaling said.

Net metered

The solar power will be net metered, in exactly the same way as would be a solar power installation on an individual house. Thus, a shareholder will receive a monthly electricity bill but will be credited for the amount of solar power arising that month from the share entitlement. And, although benefiting from solar power in a similar manner to having an individual house-top set of solar panels, a shareholder will gain from the economies of scale of a commercial facility.

Based on current pricing, the solar power will be more expensive than the power from the traditional power sources, but the cost of the solar power will be constant over the 25-year life of the solar shares. And the maintenance costs of the solar system will be minimal relative to those of a conventional power station.

Chugach Electric members who opt not to purchase shares in the solar system will not bear any of the costs associated with the system, Skaling said.

A survey of a large group of the utility’s members found that 63 percent of those surveyed supported the solar project, while 61 percent expressed a willingness to pay more for the solar power, he said.

Skaling also commented the project fits well with Chugach Electric’s sustainable business philosophy, adopted earlier this year. The philosophy says that the utility will make business decisions based on people, the planet and performance. People are asking for renewable energy, the solar energy will result in zero carbon emissions, and customers will have the choice of whether to pay for the solar project, Skaling said.

Two methods of payment

There will actually be two methods for purchasing shares in the project: either an upfront payment for a 25-year share, or a monthly subscription with a minimum commitment of one year. The subscription arrangement will be convenient for people who rent accommodation, for example. On the other hand, someone who pays up front will be able to assign shares to another member or sell them back to Chugach Electric at a predetermined price, in the event of a circumstance such as a house move, Skaling explained.

The utility has issued a request for proposals, inviting bids for construction of the solar facility. An evaluation of the bids will enable the cost of the facility to be firmed up. Then, following approval of the program by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, the hope is to start selling shares around March 1. Chugach Electric will require the sale of at least 80 percent of the shares on offer before making a commitment to construct the facility

Benefits in Alaska

People may wonder about the benefit of using solar power in Alaska, a region where days are very short during the coldest time of the year. But those short winter days are counterbalanced by the long days of summer. And any use of solar energy displaces the burning of fuel for power generation.

“Any way you slice it, when solar is producing it’s offsetting natural gas,” Skaling said.

Also, people will presumably scale the number of solar shares that they purchase to fit within their summer power needs, to avoid committing to more power than needed during summer months, he commented.

One issue that will arise in the winter is the accumulation of snow in the solar farm, with the potential for snow and ice on the solar panels blocking sunlight from reaching the solar cells. However, the panels will be mounted at an angle to the horizontal, a few feet above ground level. Thus, although snow can be expected to degrade performance to some extent, sunlight hitting the dark snow-covered panels will tend to cause the snow to slough off. And, with the snow cover occurring at times of the year when the amount of solar energy is relatively low, project economics favor allowing this natural sloughing process to happen, rather than actively clearing snow from the panels, Skaling explained.

Given that installing any kind of tracking mechanism, to have the panels continuously rotate toward the sun, would add to up-front and maintenance costs for the project, while potentially impacting system reliability, the solar panels will be fixed in an optimum position for capturing sunlight, probably facing south at about a 35 degree angle to the horizontal, Skaling said.

People interested in the community solar project can sign up to an email notification list on the Chugach Electric website.

“That will keep folks updated on the project and eventually announce when shares will be sold,” Skaling said.

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