Renewable energy haters continue to insist that reliability is a major concern for solar power, in part because solar panels don’t work efficiently in cold, snowy conditions. This myth has been debunked time and time again, and a very small but very important new solar microgrid and storage project in Alaska should put it to bed once and for all.
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Cold Weather Core Solar Panels
Here in the United States, it is true that solar panels are more popular in some of the hotter and sunnier states. However, weather is only one factor in solar adoption. State policies also exert a strong influence.
In 2020, the non-soft states of Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Jersey held 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 were also in 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 heat of the panels. Solar panels are usually installed at an angle, which allows the snow to slide off by gravity if the wind does not carry it.
The U.S. Department of Energy has also worked with industry stakeholders to design support structures that prevent excess snow from getting stuck on the frame’s lower lip, and researchers are developing coatings that help prevent the accumulation of snow and ice.
Alaska: the proof is in the solar pudding
PV technology in one form or another is already proving itself in extreme environments, including Antarctica and Mount Everest, where solar panels power the world’s tallest weather station.
The field of floating photovoltaic technology is also starting to find its place in cold countries like Poland.
With its remote, hard-to-reach villages and high fuel costs, Alaska is a perfect testing ground for the benefits of PV plus storage. Local company Alaska Native Renewable Industries was among the first to spot solar development opportunities in the state.
The U.S. Department of Energy introduced the Solarize neighborhood solar program to Alaska in 2019, and the University of Alaska has promoted solar panels as a “better bet than the stock market” for Alaskans.
The US Department of Agriculture also took a look at the state’s solar profile, which brings us to a new, more USDA-backed solar storage project that just restarted operations in the community of Shungnak, located over the Arctic. Circle.
Solar panels and energy storage for a remote community
The new project, which is also supported by the Northwest Arctic Borough, is under the wing of Hawaii-based company Blue Planet Energy.
Blue Planet presents the new facility as a one-of-a-kind microgrid with a 225 kilowatt solar panel array and 32 kilowatt-hour energy storage, specifically designed to operate in extreme weather conditions.
“The microgrid was designed to address the many challenges of operating in extreme conditions and break the community’s dependence on its expensive and polluting diesel-generator power plant,” says Blue Planet. “The resilient microgrid is integrated with 12 advanced Blue Ion LX battery storage cabinets and was installed by Alaska Native Renewable Industries in conjunction with the local Shungnak utility, Alaska Village Electric Cooperative (AVEC) and the organization at nonprofit Launch Alaska.”
The solar panel will not entirely replace diesel fuel, but it is expected to save the community over $200,000 per year on fuel costs alone. Additionally, maintenance costs are expected to drop as the use of diesel generators is minimized.
Take the Energy Storage Plunge
It may seem simple to unplug a diesel generator and plug in a new array of solar panels, but the Shungnak project is much more complicated.
“Uniquely designed to enable ‘diesels off’ operation, the system automatically coordinates between solar power and energy storage to ensure low-cost power and communicates with the AVEC power plant on the best times to switch off diesel production,” says Blue Planet.
Breaking the first barrier of its kind was an impressive feat for AVEC, which had been hesitant to enter the field of energy storage. It seems Blue Planet’s extensive track record has been compelling.
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 energy in a community in the AVEC service territory.
Now that AVEC has taken the plunge, other communities in Alaska have a model to follow. This might just be the start. The Launch Alaska organization advocates for renewable energy statewide with support from two mission partners, the US Navy’s Office of Naval Research and the Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions.
This puts Shungnak in the role of a demonstration project that could be replicated beyond Alaska, and that seems to be what Launch Alaska has in mind.
“Our mission partners are committed to supporting the innovation communities and startups they nurture. They partner with us to drive innovation, build demonstration and commercial projects, and scale solutions in domestic and international markets,” says Launch Alaska.
Cost savings are only one beneficial aspect of the project. Minimizing the use of diesel generators also has an impact on the quality of life of communities.
Rob Roys, head of Launch Alaska’s office of innovation, notes that many children in the Shungnak community have “never experienced village life without the constant hum of diesel fuel in the background or the smell of exhaust gases”.
“With the energy storage system, we can turn off the diesels 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,” adds he.
Solar panels and national security
Small as it is, the Shungnak project could be at the heart of 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 by the Office of Naval Research and focuses on “energy advancements through resilience research, technology development/deployment, and education” throughout Alaska and the region.
“The partners hope to build human resource capacity and industrial capacity in the area of energy and resilience by promoting trade and partnerships in the Arctic and Pacific regions and advancing resource technology (energy, food, water, waste management), education, research, development, demonstration and deployment,” explains ARCTIC.
“This includes fostering relationships between world-renowned American research institutions; advancing the economic base of the United States by providing technologies that meet Arctic and Pacific needs; and promote talent development and education in the Arctic and Pacific region,” they add.
Russia’s murderous rampage through Ukraine has panicked global energy policymakers, and the rush is on to increase fossil fuel production in the United States and elsewhere. However, the tiny 225-kilowatt array of solar panels at Shungnak is a powerful indication that the US Department of Defense continues to drive toward a sustainable future.
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Photo: Solar panels in Alaska, part of a solar microgrid plus storage (credit: Blue Planet).
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