Alaska’s largest rural solar project set to break ground in Kotzebue

The site layout for the new solar project in Kotzebue. The project is set to begin construction in late February and would be the largest solar array in rural Alaska. (Graphic courtesy of Alaska Native Renewable Industries)

The high costs of diesel fuel to power energy grids has led a lot of rural utilities to offset with more renewable energy. The city of Kotzebue has used wind power for decades to supplement its fuel use, and is now about to break ground on a brand new solar project.

Martin Shroyer is the general manager for Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA), the city’s local electric utility. He says renewable energy is nothing new in Kotzebue. 

“It’s been the model since the mid 90s,” Shroyer said. “We were the first wind farm above the Arctic Circle.”

The new solar project will take the place of those older turbines which Shroyer says are much more expensive to upkeep. 

“They’re obsolete,” Shroyer said. “They’re hard to get parts and hard to maintain right now, so the solar will help replace some of the energy they generated.”

The 576-kilowatt project will involve the installation of more than 1,400 solar panels in Kotzebue, generating an estimated 700,000 kilowatt hours of power a year or more. The dual-sided state-of-the-art panels will even be able to capture solar power from light reflected off of snow. 

It will be the largest solar project in rural Alaska, and second statewide to the 1.2 megawatt solar farm in Willow. 

Generating power in rural Alaska is largely driven by diesel fuel, which can be expensive to ship to communities off the road system, like Kotzebue. Shroyer says the city has focused on increasing renewables to keep costs lower.He says while the electric rate for KEA customers would stay the same, they should see a decrease in their fuel cost adjustment. 

Kotzebue receives a lot more wind annually than sunlight, which only is reliable for about seven months of the year. Despite that, KEA engineer Matt Bergan says due to the relative installation ease and lower cost of the solar panels, they end up being more cost-effective. 

“The energy output from a 60kw solar array is going to be less annually than a 60kw wind turbine for our location,” Bergan said. “However, the cost for operations and maintenance for the solar array will be quite a bit less than the wind turbine.”

The new solar project should make Kotzebue about 50 percent powered by renewable energy. Bergan says that wind power in Kotzebue isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and KEA will be utilizing a mix of solar and their newer, more powerful 900kw wind turbines.

“Installation of those turbines is a rather expensive undertaking, but the amount of energy production and reliability is quite high,” Bergan said. “We see solar as a way to utilize some of our older wind infrastructure, so we’re essentially decommissioning wind and adding solar.”

Alaska Native Renewable Industries (ANRI) is the general contractor for the solar project. ANRI founder Edwin Bifelt grew up in Huslia, and says he felt disappointed with how projects were built in rural communities. 

“You know, a lot of times you’d see contractors based in Fairbanks or Anchorage,” Bifelt said. “And it’s always kind of challenging because they come in, they bring in a lot of their own labor and it was always kind of tough for me to see that.”

ANRI focuses on hiring locals for their installation projects. In a recent project in the village of Hughes, Bifelt says the only people not from the community were himself and his electrical administrator. 

Construction on the Kotzebue solar project is set to begin at the end of February, with a completion date in April. ANRI is currently looking for 20 temporary local hires, in addition to the people already working at KEA. 

Bifelt says they hope to continue their rural solar efforts with a new bid on a solar project in the Northwest Arctic village of Shungnak. 

Editor’s note: Matt Bergan, the KEA engineer quoted in this story, serves on KOTZ’s Community Advisory Board.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Martin Shroyer’s last name. It is Shroyer, not Schroyer.

Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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