Start-up gambles time is right for Alaska solar power

Stephen Trimble and Chase Christie of Arctic Solar Ventures show off the company’s largest installation to date: an 86-panel commercial installation in downtown Anchorage. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Alaska’s solar industry lags far behind many other states.

But with prices dropping dramatically around the world, some entrepreneurs see a new opportunity.

One major challenge is simply convincing people that solar works in Alaska — and that, in fact, Alaska might be ideal solar territory.

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The newest solar array in Anchorage sits on top of a two-story office building downtown. Climb up a ladder, through a hatch and onto the roof, and there it is: 86 solar panels sitting in several inches of fresh snow.

Stephen Trimble is the founder of Arctic Solar Ventures, the Anchorage start-up that installed this system at 880 H Street. Surveying the roof in a neon yellow jacket with his business logo stitched into the front, he said over the course of the year, this array will produce almost 15 percent of the building’s total electricity needs — and that’s not bad.

“This is a 20,000-square-foot commercial building,” Trimble said, as Chase Christie, the company’s vice president, adds, “Built in the 1970s. Uses a tremendous amount of electricity.”

At a cost of about $100,000, the system will pay for itself in nine to 12 years, Trimble and Christie said. Over 30 years, they estimate it will save the building owner — who in this case is Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz — some $300,000.

That’s the math that’s starting to make solar pencil out in Alaska.

The state doesn’t have the generous local incentives that have helped the industry thrive elsewhere. But in the past few years, Trimble said, costs have dropped so quickly that those incentives are no longer necessary.

It was enough to convince him, at least, to take a leap.

“One day I came home and told my wife (now company vice president Jacqueline Savina) … I said, I think I want to start a solar company in Alaska,” Trimble said. “And she was kind of like, what? That’s crazy.”

Trimble said that reaction is one of the biggest barriers solar companies face in Alaska: education.

That means educating regulators, who often haven’t dealt with solar before; and educating a workforce in a region with very little experience in solar installation. But above all, it means educating consumers: convincing people that solar is an option in Alaska, a state better known for darkness and cold. And harder yet, convincing them that Alaska might even have some advantages.

Take the installation at 880 H Street. In mid-February, there’s snow on the roof, snow on the roads, snow on the park strip. Erin Whitney of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power said all that snow is actually a plus. She said the spring — especially March and April — can be particularly good months for solar power in Alaska.

“That’s because of the position of the sun as well as the reflection of light from snow surfaces,” Whitney said. “(And) I would actually add to that, cold temperatures, which enhance solar photo-voltaic production.”

Snow and cold: Call them Alaska’s secret solar super powers.

Boosters like to point out the state’s solar potential is comparable to Germany, which is the world leader in solar installations.

Whitney stresses the state isn’t exactly on the edge of a revolution.

“The solar industry is still very nascent in Alaska,” Whitney said.

A recent report from the Solar Foundation ranked Alaska  51st out of 50 states (the list also includes Washington, D.C.) in solar jobs per capita.

The report notes that Alaska solar jobs actually doubled from 2015 to 2016, to a grand total of 64. That’s less than half the number in the next-lowest performer, Wyoming.

And it’s a pretty good shorthand for the solar industry as a whole: it’s growing, but from a very low base.

The two utilities that serve most of Anchorage — Municipal Light & Power and Chugach Electric Association — say solar power represents well under 1 percent of their total generation. But Chugach also said the number of photo-voltaic solar installations in its area more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, for a total of about 70.

For Stephen Trimble and Arctic Solar Ventures, this is a moment of opportunity and risk.

His company hasn’t turned a profit yet — they’re hoping to cross that threshold later this year.

The installation downtown is their biggest system to date.

Trimble and Christie like to keep an eye on it.

“We drive by it a lot, make sure it’s doing good,” Trimble said.

“We hope to see a lot more just like this,” Christie said. “Generating clean energy from your own roof? There’s something very Alaskan about that, I’d say.”

Rachel Waldholz covers energy and the environment for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media, KTOO in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Before coming to Anchorage, she spent two years reporting for Raven Radio in Sitka. Rachel studied documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and her short film, A Confused War won several awards. Her work has appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace, among other outlets.
rwaldholz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8432 | About Rachel

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