Solar Photovoltaic Technology Briefing
The installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) arrays has increased in Alaska in the last 5 years as the price has dropped. A number of factors support the prospects for solar PV power in Alaska energy systems. Detailed computer simulations by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) show significant solar potential on par with or greater than Germany, the largest market for solar power in the world. (To be fair, the large penetration of solar PV power in Germany is due to government policies and incentives.)
Alaska’s cold temperatures increase the efficiency of solar PV systems by reducing electrical resistance and yielding higher outputs from the sun reflecting off the snowpack.
Current Installations in Alaska
The systems covered in this briefing range in size from 2.2 kW in Ambler to 50 kW in Galena. Online data is available for some of the roughly 20 systems installed in Alaska, though cost information is harder to come by. Costs for state-funded projects are available from the Alaska Energy Authority, but few projects have been funded by the state. Cost information is sometimes available via community development staff. Significant data collection is still needed for specific details such as module technology type, mounting types, and other characteristics that can further refine this analysis.
Key Performance Metrics
With several exceptions, the cost of systems decreases as the installation size goes up. However, prices in Alaska are still significantly higher than the rest of the United States. Operation and maintenance costs vary due to limited data and the short time that solar PV systems have been installed in Alaska. Anecdotally, many PV arrays installed around the state have not needed any maintenance since installation. In general, cost data for solar installations in rural Alaska are difficult to obtain. Often a job is bid on by a contractor as a lump sum, and it is difficult to get accurate numbers on labor and materials.
Capacity factors for selected installations around Alaska range from 6%–15%. Note that many systems in the Northwest Arctic Borough were installed in a semicircular fashion with the goal of a broad production curve rather than maximum power production. Additional systems have been installed around the state, but do not have sufficient data available to obtain capacity factor information.
Most installers assume a system life of 25 years, although individual components may need replacement sooner.
In Alaska, options in solar PV systems include microinvertors, which are attached to each panel and prevent an entire string of panels from going offline if just one panel is damaged. Concentrated solar PV technology is a candidate for generating heat as well as electricity.
Technology Gaps & Barriers to Success
A current paradox for utilities is the fixed costs they must pay even as renewable energy installations displace diesel. To cover these transmission costs, they must raise rates for the rest of the community. In addition, Alaska’s installations are smaller and mainly comprise monocrystalline silicon panels. Tracking systems, which may yield more output, have been successfully demonstrated but require regular inspection, which may not always be available in remote communities. Even then, the extra cost of tracking systems makes them not nearly as cost-effective as non-tracking systems, especially with the decreasing cost of modules in general.
Statewide purchasing of panels could provide larger economies of scale. Helping communities and organizations navigate tax credits for solar PV installations would be useful, especially for parties without tax liabilities.
Left: Solar is a rapidly growing technology that can perform very well in Alaska’s cold climate. Photo Courtesy Cold Climate Housing Research Center. Center: Solar photovoltaic systems can be found throughout Alaska, including rural residential systems such as Anaktuvuk Pass. Photo courtesy Cold Climate Housing Research Center. Right: The University of Alaska Fairbanks powers its campus partly with solar photovoltaic panels, on the Student Recreation Center (pictured above) and the Engineering Building.