Solarize Anchorage spreads solar across Airport Heights neighborhood

Anchorage Solar owner Ben May secures a solar panel on Lisa Pekar’s garage roof. He said business has increased almost eight-fold since he opened in 2016. “You caught me mid-way through a costume change,” he said. “I wear many hats.” (Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media)

In late 2017, Anchorage resident Isaac Vanderburg realized that he was having the same conversation with a lot of his neighbors in the Airport Heights area.

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“Several people had asked about could we turn Airport Heights into its own micro-grid or could we put solar panels up or what about electric vehicles in the neighborhood,” Vanderburg said.

So Vanderburg reached out to organizations that work with renewables like the Alaska Center for Energy and Power or ACEP.

“The folks over at ACEP had wanted to do a Solarize campaign for a long time and were just looking for the right dynamics and a little bit of local leadership to actually make it a reality,” Vanderburg said.

The first phase of the Solarize Anchorage campaign was born. The program brings together community members to purchase solar panels in bulk. That saves the company that installs the panels money and results in a discount for residents. The campaign hosted community events and did door-to-door outreach in Airport Heights. Thirty-two residents signed on, three times more than organizers expected.

Less than a year after Vanderburg had the idea, it’s becoming a reality.

It’s starting to rain as Anchorage Solar employee Tim Remick hoists a solar panel over his head and slides it toward the pitch of a garage roof. Another member of the team sets it atop two metal bars at the roof’s edge and clamps it into place.

They spent the better part of yesterday and this morning preparing for this moment, putting in wiring and taking care to protect the integrity of the roof. Not to mention the permits, inspections and the planning and design behind each installation. They’re about halfway done with all their Solarize Anchorage installs. And Remick said people are starting to take notice.

“We’ve had kids feel like we’re the ice cream truck. We drive by and the kid’s like ‘Solar so cool! Dad, can we have some?'” Remick said.

They’re installing for home owner Lisa Pekar who said part of why she wanted to participate in the project was to teach her son about renewable energy. When the team’s finished, the south-facing half of the roof is covered in panels, enough that Pekar hopes to sell some of the power back to the grid in the summer months. She said she’d never considered solar before signing on to the project.

Airport Heights-resident Lisa Pekar decided to participate in the Solarize Anchorage program after hearing about it on the community Facebook page. Before that, she hadn’t considered installing panels to cover some of her home’s power consumption. (Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media)

“What really drew us to it was that we could kind of join together with a bunch of people and have some momentum,” Pekar said.

The U.S. is set to reach two million solar panel installations by the end of this year. It took 30 years to reach the first million and just two to add a million more. That’s partly because solar panels have gotten a lot cheaper and more efficient in the last few years. Anchorage Solar owner Ben May, who won the contract for the project, said solar’s increasing affordability boils down to policy. Germany started a feed-in tariff program, an incentive that pays people for producing clean energy like solar.

“As a result China built factories to fill that demand and as a result we all have cheap solar panels now,” May said.

May said Alaska is playing catch-up to the national solar trend. His business has boomed, increasing almost eight-fold since they opened in 2016. One hurdle is reaching people who’ve thought about solar in the past but found it too expensive. Panel cost has dropped to almost a tenth of what it was ten years ago. And then there’s Alaska’s dark winters.

“We get asked a lot about winter,” May said. “We make our power in the summer. We make the difference in the summer and the spring and the fall.”

Depending on the number of panels and their energy usage, homeowners can produce enough in the summer to cover their winter power costs and then some. Still, the price tag isn’t small. An average install costs $10,000. Solarize Anchorage saved participants about 10 percent. There’s also federal tax credits and state and local incentives to help bring down the expense. It takes around 10 years to pay back the up-front costs.

“We’re seeing rate of returns about the same as the stock market, about eight, nine, sometimes even 10 percent for a good roof that’s facing south,” May said.

The most rewarding part, May said, is watching homeowner’s reactions when they turn the solar on for the first time.

“When it turns on they’re psyched. They’re so psyched,” May said. “They’re making their own power.”

Kristen Collins works for the Alaska Center, which is in charge of education and outreach for the project. She says the program was modeled after similar ones across the country but is the first of its kind in Alaska.

“Anywhere from Fairbanks down to the Kenai Peninsula, people want to know how to bring this program to their own neighborhood,” Collins said.

They’re not sure yet what the next phase of the project will hold, but they’ve already started brainstorming. Ideas include adding commercial buildings and expanding the program to other forms of energy.

Anchorage Solar employee Tim Remick hoists a solar panel over his head before installing it on Solarize Anchorage participant Lisa Pekar’s roof. The program saved participants around 10 percent on solar panel installations. (Erin McKinstry, Alaska Public Media)

Erin McKinstry is Alaska Public Media's 2018 summer intern. She has an M.A. from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and a B.A. from Knox College. She's reported stories for The Trace, The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, Harvest Public Media, the IRE Radio Podcast, KBIA and The Columbia Missourian.

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