Alaska’s midnight sun is going to work for more peninsula residents as they install more and more solar panels.
The Solarize the Kenai campaign kicked off this summer, offering discounts to people who wanted to install solar panels on their homes or businesses. The campaign, headed up by community action group Kenai Change, brought residents together to ask for bids from solar installers so they could get a bargain group rate on the panels before installing them.
Midnight Sun Solar won the bid and has been busy installing setups since April. Owner Mark Haller estimated that they’ve done between 30-40 setups. By comparison, they did about 60 installations last summer from April through November. The Solarize campaign has been really successful, he said.
"I think most folks are… their electric bills are one of those hard costs they have to pay every month," he said. "So regardless if they can afford their electric system or a solar system, they’re going to be putting that money somewhere, so I think a lot of people have wanted to make that final leap and have more control over their expenses, essentially manage the rising cost of energy."
Solar energy in Alaska isn’t necessarily new, but it’s grown a lot in recent years, particularly in homes on the grid. For years, solar was primarily for off-grid cabins, RVs, boats, and homes that couldn’t get electrical grid hookups. While Haller said Midnight Sun still does a fair number of those off-grid setups, the Solarize campaign was primarily targeting homes on the grid.
The cost of energy in Alaska is one thing that makes solar economical here. Haller explained that this is because peninsula residents pay so much more per kilowatt hour of energy than people in the Lower 48.
"Because our price per each one of those kilowatt hours is typically about triple what the cost is down there, the value is still there," he said. "So we’re seeing return on investments from anywhere as little as seven all the way up to 12 or 13 years, depending on the orientation of the modules."
The volume of people in the Solarize campaign allowed Midnight Sun to lower prices, and buyers were able to take advantage of a 26 percent federal tax credit. So far, the central peninsula has installed about 140 kilowatts of solar capacity this summer, and the southern peninsula has contracted for 167 kilowatts, according to Kenai Change.
Grid-tied solar depends on established power infrastructure. The sun doesn’t shine all the time, and in the winter, it’s not enough to power a typical home’s needs. Homer Electric Association allows solar generators to feed power back into the grid during high generation months through a program called net metering. HEA purchases that renewable power back, giving the generator a credit to use in the future. Essentially, it’s using the grid as a big battery, said HEA Member Relations Manager Bruce Shelley.
"Under the regulations, the amount of member generated power offsets the member’s electric consumption, where the member is either billed for net electric consumption or credited for generating more electricity than what is used," he said.
There are a couple of caveats to it, though. For one, HEA caps its total net metering at 3 percent of the average annual demand. The other is that solar generators now can’t get their bills down to zero, the way they could before. On January 1 of this year, an HEA policy that allowed them to sunsetted, and they have to pay the same basic membership rate of $24.12 per month that every member does.
"That money is used to pay for infrastructure: For the transformer, for the lines, for the poles that are sitting there 24/7, ready to provide you energy when you flip the switch, or the need arises that you need energy," he said.
HEA was the first to allow for net metering, and has raised the cap once before from 1.5 percent to 3 percent. The HEA board’s renewable energy committee is scheduled to meet again on July 14 and will be discussing the net metering program. Those meetings are open to the public and can be attended telephonically.
The discounted Solarize rate is available through August 1. Haller said Midnight Sun Solar will also be holding an open house at its peninsula office on Kalifornsky Beach Road, which opened in February, on July 18 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., where the public is invited to come and learn more about solar energy.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that the net metering cap is set at 3 percent of the average annual demand.