Major solar panel project nears completion in Willow

Published: Aug. 27, 2018 at 8:23 PM AKDT
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A major solar panel project is nearing completion a few miles south of Willow with hopes of turning a profit within the next eight to ten years.

Jenn Miller, the CEO of Renewable Independent Power Producers, says that the solar panel farm consists of 408 panels that will soon be able to generate 160,000 kilowatt hours per year, or enough electricity to power 25 to 30 homes.

The purpose of the project is profit. Miller, her husband Chris Colbert and two other business partners are generating power to sell back to Matanuska Electric Association, a utility that has worked with Miller since the project's infancy in November, 2017.

Julie Estey, MEA's Director of External Affairs, says the utility currently has partnerships with three independent power producers, all of which are hydro-powered. Two are located in Eagle River and one is in Palmer.

The solar project in Willow will be the first major solar panel partnership with a business for MEA, and Estey says the Valley cooperative is "looking forward to it."

The amount typically paid to an independent power producer is the avoided cost for the utility, explained Estey. That's the cost a cooperative like MEA would have incurred had they generated the power themselves.

Currently, that amounts to just over 9 cents per kilowatt hour, but that figure is subject to change as it's determined each quarter by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. A similar arrangement can be worked out for homeowners and businesses who want their own renewable energy systems through a process known as 'net metering' where excess power is sold back to the utility, again at the avoided cost rate for the utility.

Miller did not disclose the cost of the project, but said it was entirely self-funded by the four business partners who are all engineers by training. She says the company would be eligible for the 30 percent federal investment tax credit for renewable energy projects.

The solar panel project broke ground back in June, with the four partners working on construction and installation to cut down on costs according to Miller.

When asked about generating power in winter, Miller said power generation will wind down in December and January, but they will be able to generate some power throughout the rest of winter, meaning they will need to drive up to mile 64.7 to dust snow off the panels.

"A lot of our solar installations are finding their paybacks are faster than they anticipated, so it's exciting to see it as an option," said Estey.

According to researchers in renewable energy, solar power can be viable in Alaska as the state sees

, a global leader in solar technology. In May,

, having grown exponentially in the last few years.

Miller says the project should be completed within the next two to three weeks as the company waits for wiring and a few odds and ends to arrive. If the pilot program is successful, Miller says the company will be looking to expand its efforts.