Alex Gimarc: Solar energy in the Railbelt



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:

  1. 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.
  2. Solar farms use a lot of land.  We are looking at square kilometers necessary for Chugach’s proposed solar farm.
  3. 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.


  1. In the mid 2000’s, we installed solar panels at a few locations along TAPS, to power Catholic Protection. We struggled with batteries exploding, and the thought (at that time) was that the Northern Lights were inducing damaging current, ultimately blowing-up the batteries.
    It will be interesting to see if these projects along the Railbelt experience e this too.

    • Dude, 20yrs ago? You think technology is stagnant? I’m typing this on and iPhone that didn’t exist when this trial project you worked on occurred. I mean, you couldn’t get a 300HP diesel pickup off the lot then either. Point being, your data point is worthless.

  2. Alex,

    Haven’t talked to you in a few years, but as always you make some good points. When I read this piece the first thing that came to me was, if all the agricultural land on Point Mackenzie were converted to a solar farm, would the dollar yield per acre be greater.

    Living in Idaho during winter, you see a fair amount of solar generation and wind farms. However, virtually all of that power is exported as all of Idaho’s power needs are met by hydro. Our power rates are low and if I did some grid connected solar at home, based on current Idaho regulatory policy on power reimbursement, the investment would not be recouped until several years after the panels would need to be replaced.

    Electricity is not my expertise, I’m more skilled at broadband internet. The State’s Broadband Office is going to publish its plan soon, or the part of the plan that goes into detail about how they intend a little more than $1B, that’s billion the the result of broadband for all.

    Tom Brady

    • Seems like the Gov would be supportive of this resource opportunity—think about all of the spruce that could be harvested during clearing operations. Might even see a barge or three at Point Mack to pick up our great timber resource—someone, somewhere must want some cheap wood chips/mulch.

  3. I haven’t see the wind generators on Fire Island moving for a very long time. How much did us utility users pay and continue to pay for that boondoggle?

    Natural gas is cheaper and cleaner! Especially when you consider the wasted resources with virtually no return on the capital, destruction of trees that remove carbon, huge burden on landfills as the panels and wind generators are NOT recyclable.

    Solar and wind are not a good investments for Alaskans!

    • Um, natural gas prices are about to go up, at best, by 50% when railbelt utilities start importing LNG from Canada in a few years. (Cook Inlet gas supplies decline has been discussed at length the last few months.)

  4. Greenies love solar, but it seems pretty dumb to invest in it in a land devoid of sunlight when you need the electricity the most. But, then, rational thought isn’t the strong suit of greenies.
    They hate dams, too, which could keep us in electricity forever here.
    Geothermal electricity generation, especially if you’re going to put it in the vicinity of Mt. Spur, might get them excited. In addition to finding investors, selling it to greenies (which is critical to success) seems easier than other options.

  5. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has a photovoltaic calculator that you can use to see how much solar energy there is at any location, it will essentially tell you if solar panels make sense.


    • I’ve been playing around with this calculator and using the numbers that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory what I’ve found for me is that I’d need to purchase and install a +/- $20,000 6kW system. At it’s peak performance this system would cover my daily usage for the month I use the least amount of energy. The rest of the year it would only cover fractions of my daily usage, in some months it wouldn’t even cover a days worth of usage for the whole month combined. This is all using their own numbers. So I spend $20,000 to cover a few months worth of energy usage, it would take years and years to break even…if I ever did.

  6. Solar power in Alaska? Cue the Bud Light jingle: “Real men of Genius”. Here’s to you, Mr. Chugach Electric Board Member. You spent millions putting a solar array in a subarctic region that is near-dark for months of the year.

    • When the sun is shining. How many days of actual sunshine did the Mat-Su Valley have for this last year? Maybe 20% of the days. The evil people have been keeping us under clouds for a long time now.

      • Ginny, there is no such place as “the Mat-Su Valley”, because there is no such thing as the Mat-Su River. There is the Matanuska Valley, and then there is the separate Susitna Valley. Please inform yourself better regarding local Alaskan geography.

  7. That 8.4% capacity factor doesn’t pass the smell test. It most likely is more of a dream than fact. Why didn’t you ask GVEA to prove it or do any independent analysis of your own?

    CEA customers are facing an almost 6% rate hike. Don’t think for one nanosecond that they won’t back back for more as soon as they start rolling out phony green energy projects that do nothing more than give manufacturers, engineers and contractors a lot of money. Oh, and did I mention that CEA board members most likely will be stuffing their mattresses with that money, too, by investing in those companies.

  8. Putting up a solar farm at Pt. McKenzie is a toxic wasteland waiting to happen. How much of it will be destroyed in the next big earthquake that comes our way? Anyone see how many tremors are out in that area? I agree with Haha on this one – California solutions for arctic conditions…and, I’ll add that it is even being installed in a seismically active area like California with power transmission lines to boot! Gonna be a good shake-up!

  9. Great reporting. Could you find out more? I want to know if these solar companies are leaving a sizable “cleaning deposit “ for each of their installations. Each and every solar panel will eventually break or quit working; each and every solar panel will eventuate need to be buried in a landfill somewhere. Some of these companies will go bankrupt and leave their “farms” to deteriorate. Clean up and disposal will be VERY expensive, and the money to do it must be set aside upfront by the company. Otherwise, Alaskans will be responsible for their messes and failures. (Same goes for the wind turbines.)

  10. Speaking of timing. One of the data dinks at WUWT posted a piece analyzing total taxpayer subsidies for various forms of electricity. Nice graph. All numbers are dollars per one MWh of generated electricity. Takeaway:

    – Subsidy for Hydro – $0/40/MWh
    – Subsidy for Fossil fuels – $1.03/MWh
    – Subsidy for nukes – $1.21/MWh
    – Subsidy for Wind / Biomass / Geothermal – $16.79 – 17.93/MWh
    – Subsidy for Solar – $68.67/MWh

    As usual, the free stuff is the very most expensive. Cheers –


    • Buddy of mine said that if you took away the Gov subsidies, no “green” energy project would ever be implemented.
      Too expensive, and takes several lifetimes (of the installed equipment, not human lifetimes) to see a ROI.

  11. Paying increased costs for alternative energy would be argumentative if these sources actually worked. Take away all the subsidies and let private enterprise dictate the source of electricity. Or soon, only the wealthy will enjoy electricity.

  12. All You need to Know.

  13. There exist zero economically viable solar or wind generation at scale that would be built without the incredible government (our money pirinted out of thin air) susidy. ZERO. Small personal projects CAN be viable but only with considerable knowledge base of the operator, which is the individual that owns the system. Hiring people when things break is an extremely costly endeavor. i know because I am one of those guys.

  14. No surprise here. The feel-good solar projects will be quietly scrapped, in landfills after the requisite taxpayer subsidies have been milked for a decade or more. Just another series of wasteful boondoggles.

Comments are closed.