Homer Electric Association is “in the exploratory phase” of planning a solar power installation that may be funded by voluntary member investments, according to HEA Director of Power, Fuels and Dispatch Larry Jorgensen.
Under one possible funding method the proposed community solar facility — which would likely be built on HEA property in Homer — could be paid for by contributions from members who would receive a proportional output of its energy.
Jim Levine, an HEA director from the Homer district, said he initiated the community solar project during his first term as an HEA director between 2009 and 2014 after seeing an article in a utility trade magazine about a similar community solar project in Sacramento, California. Levine was elected to his third term as an HEA director in May, and has said in past Clarion interviews that increasing HEA’s renewable energy use was his reason for seeking the position.
HEA generates about 90 percent of its power from nonrenewable natural gas, while the 10 percent of renewable power it uses comes from the state-owned Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plant. However, privately-installed wind and solar units also contribute power to HEA members via net metering — an arrangement in which members who’ve installed wind turbines or solar panels to power their homes can draw electricity from the HEA grid in times when the wind and sun are too weak to fill their needs, and contribute extra power to the HEA grid when the sun and wind exceed their needs. Under the net metering rules that the Regulatory Commission of Alaska established in 2009, net metering customers are billed monthly for the grid power they consume minus what they contribute, and can install home generation capacity up to 25 kilowatts.
Since its introduction, a small but steadily growing number of HEA members have participated in net metering, according to HEA’s website. In 2010 net metering participants contributed 36,767 kilowatts to the HEA grid; by 2016 they contributed 216,708 kilowatts. In the present group of net metering users are 59 solar installations with a total capacity of 192.7 kilowatts, and 34 wind installations with a capacity of 126.5 kilowatts, wrote HEA Director of Member Relations Bruce Shelley in an email. For comparison, the average American home used about 901 kilowatt-hours per month in 2015, according to the U.S Energy Information Administration.
Gary Dawkins, owner of Gary’s Auto Electric in Soldotna, said he has been installing private renewable generation since HEA began allowing private generators to connect to its grid in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Participating in the net metering program, he said, takes a monetary investment in extra equipment and a time investment in extra work — many of his clients who can afford it prefer to go off the grid completely, he said.
“You are you’re own utility now, basically,” Dawkins said of net-metering users. “But at the same time, you’re still hooked to HEA.”
Levine said he’d thought of the community solar project as a way for people who want to contribute to renewable energy but are unable to afford it in their own homes to do so through HEA.
“I think there’s a lot of people who’d like to participate (in net metering), but they don’t necessarily have the money to buy an entire solar system, or a location where a solar system would work, or the ability to maintain a system,” Levine said. “So I think this is where the co-op could help out — for somebody who wants to participate but doesn’t have all the necessary ingredients to make it happen.”
Because sunlight is less concentrated in northern latitudes, Alaska receives less energy from the sun than almost all the rest of the U.S. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the electrical demand that a square meter of solar panel in Alaska can fill per day, averaged over a year, is about 3 kilowatt-hours. Through much of the Lower 48 this number is 5 kilowatt-hours, and about 6 kilowatt-hours in the sunny southwest. Nonetheless, solar power has advantages in Alaska — Levine said photovoltaic panels are more efficient in the cold, can use sunlight reflected from snow, and even on short, dim winter days rarely have zero output, which can’t be said of wind turbines.
Plans for HEA’s community solar project have changed shape several times since Levine first made the proposal, and HEA’s engineers and directors have yet to figure out the technical or financial specifics. In November 2016 HEA General Manager Brad Janorschke presented to the HEA board a previous incarnation of the community solar project estimated to have a 29.2 kilowatt-capacity and a $241,725 price tag.
At its annual members meeting in May, HEA publicized another design that would compensate for the lower intensity of Alaska’s sunlight by rotating its panels to follow the sun throughout the day. This version of the project would use SmartFlower solar units featuring a flower-shaped array of sun-tracking panels that are 40 percent more efficient than stationary panels, according to the Austrian company that makes the SmartFlower. At that meeting Jorgensen roughly estimated that a 20 percent share of the SmartFlower-based project would cost about $5,000.
Presently, Jorgensen said, the SmartFlower-based solar project is one of many HEA is considering. One alternative possibility is installing a greater number of cheaper, but individually less efficient, stationary solar panels.
“Does it make sense to go cheaper and have more of them, or to go smarter and fewer?” Jorgensen said. “We’re trying to run the economics and see all the different ways we could do this.”
At the same time, Jorgensen said, HEA is trying to measure the member interest necessary to realize the project. Jorgensen and other HEA staff working on the solar project presented possibilities to the HEA Board of Directors on Tuesday and plan to release more detailed findings next month.
As a possible alternative to the member-funded model, Jorgensen said HEA has also received proposals from companies interested in building, maintaining and operating a solar facility and selling the energy to HEA, without involving direct voluntary member funding.
“What we’re targeting is the kind of system that could grow with whatever demand there is,” Jorgensen said. “We’d prefer to start small, with a very small investment, and if there’s enough interest we’ll grow with the amount of interest there is. We want to be sure we won’t have negative impact to the customers and members who don’t want to participate. … We don’t want to have what they call cross-subsidization — we want to have the project stand on its own two feet. Whatever the cost of the project is to do, the members who are participating need to be able to pay for it.”
Levine said any amount of solar generation is a start.
“It’s a small enough project that it’s worth a try,” Levine said. “If it works, then great. If it doesn’t, then we have some solar panels that are providing electricity. On a utility-scale, they’re not providing very much electricity, but it’s not like it’s a total waste. … A lot of folks at HEA are reticent at getting involved in this kind of deal. They know that the natural gas works, but they don’t know that this works, and they’ve heard various horror stories. To me, in order to get people familiar with it, it’d help if we had a few (solar panels) out there working. I kind of like the small size, because it gives everybody a chance to look at it without being intimidated by it.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.