Foes of renewable energy continue to insist that reliability is a major concern for solar power, partly because solar panels don’t function effectively when conditions are cold and snowy. That myth has been debunked time and again, and a very small but very significant new solar-plus-storage microgrid project in Alaska should put it to bed once and for all.
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Solar Panels Heart Cold Weather
Here in the US, it is true that solar panels are more popular in some of the warmest and sunniest states. However, the weather is just one factor in solar adoption. State-based policies are also a strong influence.
As of 2020, the non-balmy states of Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Jersey held down spots in the top 10 states ranked by installed PV capacity per capita. According to the latest data from the Solar Energy Industries Association, as of last month New Jersey and Massachusetts also made the top 10 for total installed PV capacity.
The impact of snow and ice on solar panels is minimized by several factors, including the availability of wind and the warmth of the panels. Solar panels are generally installed at an angle, enabling snow to slide off by gravity if the wind doesn’t blow it off.
The US Department of Energy has also worked with industry stakeholders to design support structures that prevent excess snow from getting stuck on the bottom lip of the frame, and researchers are developing coatings that help prevent snow and ice accumulation.
Alaska: The Proof Is In The Solar Pudding
PV technology in one form or another is already proving its worth in extreme environments, including Antarctica and Mt. Everest, where solar panels provide power for the world’s highest weather station.
The field of floating PV technology is also beginning to find its footing in cold-weather nations like Poland.
With its remote, difficult-to-access villages and high fuel costs, Alaska is a perfect proving ground for the advantages of PV plus storage. The local firm Alaska Native Renewable Industries was among the first to spot the opportunities for solar development in the state.
The US Department of Energy brought the Solarize neighborhood solar program to Alaska in 2019, and the University of Alaska has been promoting solar panels as a “better bet than the stock market” for Alaskans.
The US Department of Agriculture has also taken up an interest in the state’s solar profile, and that brings us to a new USDA-supported solar-plus-storage project that just revved up operations in the community of Shungnak, which is located above the Arctic Circle.
Solar Panels Plus Energy Storage For A Remote Community
The new project, which is also supported by the Northwest Arctic Borough, comes under the wing of the Hawaii-based firm Blue Planet Energy.
Blue Planet is billing the new installation as a first-of-its-kind microgrid with a 225-kilowatt array of solar panels and 32 kilowatt hours’ worth of energy storage, specially engineered for functionality in extreme weather.
“The microgrid was designed to address the numerous challenges of operating in extreme conditions and break the community’s dependence on its expensive and polluting diesel generator power plant,” Blue Planet explains. “The resilient microgrid is integrated with 12 advanced Blue Ion LX battery storage cabinets and was installed by Alaska Native Renewable Industries in collaboration with Shungnak’s local utility, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, (AVEC) and nonprofit Launch Alaska.”
The solar array won’t entirely sub in for diesel fuel, but it is expected to save the community more than $200,000 per year on fuel expenses alone. In addition, maintenance costs are expected to drop as use of the diesel generators is minimized.
Taking The Energy Storage Plunge
It may seem a simple matter to unplug a diesel generator and plug in a new array of solar panels, but the Shungnak project is far more complicated.
“Uniquely designed to enable a ‘diesels off’ operation, the system automatically coordinates between solar and energy storage to ensure lowest cost power and communicates with the AVEC power plant on the best times to turn diesel generation off,” Blue Planet says.
Breaking the first-of-its-kind barrier was an impressive feat for AVEC, which had been shy of jumping into the energy storage field. It appears that Blue Planet’s extensive track record did the convincing.
As a result, Shungnak has become a showcase for AVEC’s new solar-plus-storage profile, and it also represents the highest penetration of solar power in a community within AVEC’s service territory.
Now that AVEC has taken the leap, other communities in Alaska have a model to follow. That could be just the beginning. The organization Launch Alaska advocates for renewable energy throughout the state with the support of two mission partners, the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research and the Energy Department’s Office of Technology Transitions.
That places Shungnak in the role of a demonstration project that could be replicated beyond Alaska, and that appears to be what Launch Alaska has in mind.
“Our Mission Partners are committed to supporting innovation communities and the startups they foster. They collaborate with us to spur innovation, build demonstration and commercial projects, and scale solutions across national and international markets,” Launch Alaska explains.
The cost savings are just one beneficial aspect of the project. Minimizing the use of diesel generators also has a quality-of-life impact on communities.
Rob Roys, the chief Innovation Office of Launch Alaska, notes that many of the children in the Shungnak community have “never known life in the village without the constant hum of diesel in the background or the smell of exhaust fumes.”
“Thanks to the energy storage system, we can turn the diesels off but keep the lights on in the community. It also gives the local utility the ability to run on 100% clean energy for hours at a time,” he adds.
Solar Panels & National Security
Small as it is, the Shungnak project could be front and center in the Department of Defense’s energy transition through the ARCTIC energy transition program.
ARCTIC stands for Alaska Regional Collaboration for Technology Innovation and Commercialization. The organization is funded through the Office of Naval Research and its focus is on “advancements in energy through resiliency research, technology development/deployment and education” throughout Alaska and the region.
“The partners hope to build human resource capacity and industrial capabilities in energy and resiliency through promoting commerce and partnerships in the Arctic and Pacific regions and advancing resource technology (energy, food, water, waste management) education, research, development, demonstration, and deployment,” ARCTIC explains.
“This includes fostering relationships between world-leading U.S. research institutions; advancing U.S. economic base by providing technologies that meet Arctic and Pacific needs; and promoting Arctic and Pacific region talent development and education,” they add.
Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine has panicked global energy policy makers, and the rush is on to bump up fossil energy production in the US and elsewhere. However, the tiny 225-kilowatt array of solar panels in Shungnak is a powerful indication that the US Department of Defense is continuing to steamroll towards a sustainable future.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Solar panels in Alaska, part of a solar-plus-storage microgrid (credit: Blue Planet).