By ALEX GIMARC
Last month, I wrote about Chugach Electric Association’s new dalliance with renewable energy, pursuing a pair of projects, a 122 MW wind farm west of Mount Susitna and a 120 MW solar farm near Point MacKenzie. The piece went on to note a few obvious problems with pursuing solar and wind projects for basic generation. This one will take a closer look at solar energy in the Railbelt.
The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) describes solar energy generation in Alaska as mostly in the form of small-scale application for off grid, remote use. There are about 2,000 of them connected to the Railbelt grid, producing perhaps 5% of the total energy of the three existing utility-scale solar farms statewide.
Today, there are two operating solar farms in the Railbelt. Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) operates the GVEA Solar Farm, currently rated at 563 kilowatts (kW). It has an 8.4% capacity factor, meaning that on average, it generates 8.4% of its installed rated capacity. An interesting twist to the GVEA project is dual sided solar arrays which produce a bit of electricity from light reflected off snow. On its best day, the GVEA solar farm generated 69% of its rated capacity.
Golden Valley is rightfully quite pleased with their foray into solar and was very helpful gathering information about it. Sadly, they were the only Railbelt solar farm owner / operator / contractor who responded to queries for information.
The other Railbelt solar farm is the Willow Solar Farm, initially a 140-kW pilot project. An expansion to 1.2 MW was approved in 2019. None of the entities involved in the project, Renewable Independent Power Producer (Renewable IPP) or the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) were interested in providing any information about performance of this project, so I will assume it is not more efficient than the GVEA project.
Suzanne Downing covered installation of 78 kW of solar panels on top of the Egan Center in 2020. I did a follow-up piece a month later. This installation was completed under the auspices of then Mayor Berkowitz’s Climate Action Plan, written and executed by recently elected Chugach Board Member Suzanne Fleek-Green. Attempts to get performance information out of the Muni at the time and recently were ignored, so once again, the only conclusion is to use GVEA’s performance data for this installation.
In addition to highly variable output and low average output compared with other forms of generation, solar farms require a lot of land. GVEA’s solar farm occupies 12,000 m2 (0.01 km2, 3 acres). The Willow project is larger, occupying 69,000 m2 (0.7 km2, 17 acres). It also uses nearly 3 times the land per kilowatt produced than GVEA. Land use comparisons between different types of electrical generation suggest area needed for Chugach’s proposed solar farm may be in the 4 square kilometer (km2) range.
If we choose to expand solar use to the size necessary for utility-level generation requirements, we will consume massive amounts of land in the MatSu, where the locals are fighting tooth and nail to defeat the proposed West Susitna Access Road. If you build something this big, you are going to need access to it.
There are three conclusions that we can arrive at from this analysis:
- Solar output is very low compared with installed generation, averaging 8.4% here in the Railbelt. It is also highly variable, ranging 8 times over its average output at its maximum, all the way down to zero during the height of winter where electrical generation is most needed.
- Solar farms use a lot of land. We are looking at square kilometers necessary for Chugach’s proposed solar farm.
- Finally, governments, advocates, and their contractors are remarkably tight lipped when asked about performance data on their installations. My experience is when they are not answering questions, this means they are hiding something, lying by omission to the taxpaying public.
From my perspective, GVEA is doing this right as best I can figure out. They are to be commended. All other utility sized solar proposals need to be engaged with a very, very high level of skepticism, as unicorns and pixie dust aren’t going to keep us warm or the lights on in the dead of winter should these guys make their promised substantial move to renewables.
“I’ve got a secret” is hardly a positive governance model, though increasingly popular these days on the political left.
Alex Gimarc lives in Anchorage since retiring from the military in 1997. His interests include science and technology, environment, energy, economics, military affairs, fishing and disabilities policies. His weekly column “Interesting Items” is a summary of news stories with substantive Alaska-themed topics. He was a small business owner and Information Technology professional.