Interior Alaska may soon be home to the state’s first community solar project

solar panels
Golden Valley’s 3-acre solar farm on the south side of Fairbanks can generate up to 563 kilowatts. A community solar proposal being studied by the co-op’s staff would if approved allow members to buy a solar panel, or portion of a panel, and earn credits based on their panel’s output to apply to their monthly bills. (GVEA)

Golden Valley Electric Association is studying a plan that would allow its members in Interior Alaska to invest in the utility’s solar-energy farm and other facilities to reduce their monthly bills and support the co-op’s efforts to reduce use of fossil fuels.

If approved, Golden Valley will begin applying next year for permits on what could be Alaska’s first community solar project.

Golden Valley has for years allowed members who install solar or wind-power systems at their homes to reduce their monthly bills with credits they earn when they generate more electricity than they use. But many members aren’t able to take advantage of that program.

solar panels
Volunteers with Solarize Fairbanks, an organization that’s promoting greater use of solar-energy systems, install rooftop solar panels on a home in Fairbanks. (Todd Paris)

“Perhaps they don’t have a south-facing house, or a good roof. Or perhaps they’re renters,” said Tom DeLong, who chairs Golden Valley’s board of directors.

DeLong said that’s why GVEA is considering establishing a so-called community solar program that would allow those members to skip the upfront and ongoing costs of buying and maintaining a solar-energy system. Instead, they’d buy a solar panel or portion of a panel at the co-op’s solar farm in Fairbanks. The three-acre facility on the city’s south side generates up to 563 kilowatts — enough to power about 70 homes.

“The community solar model attempts to provide those benefits to those people (who) maybe can’t afford or do not want to invest in a standalone system,” he said in an interview Wednesday.

DeLong said a lot of Golden Valley members want to help the co-op transition from fossil fuels to renewable-sourced energy, like solar. And in response to their interest in community solar, the co-op’s board gave the GVEA Member Advisory Committee, or MAC, a list of objectives for the program.

“And one of them was to make this accessible to moderate- to low-income folks,” he said.

A member of a Fairbanks-based environmental advocacy organization agrees.

“We are excited about the opportunity to increase the equity and accessibility of renewable energy,” said Kenzley Defler, the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition’s energy justice coordinator. She said her organization strongly supports the community solar proposal.

“It’s a cost-effective, clean source of energy generation, which helps reduce carbon emissions, helps in the transition away from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas,” she said in an interview last week.

DeLong acknowledged that some Golden Valley members aren’t interested in solar energy, but he said all benefit from surplus electricity generated by solar. And he emphasized that community solar subscribers would cover the cost of the program. And they could take advantage of economies of scale made available by GVEA purchasing many solar panels at a time.

“In fact, we hope that there’s oversubscription and that more people want in on it,” he said. “And in that case, we could make the project bigger.

DeLong said the initial goal is to have enough subscribers to support a 500 kilowatt solar farm, enough to power about 70 homes. That investment would be paid back through member savings from their monthly power bill, according to Fairbanks-based energy analyst Phil Wight.

“The average savings for a consumer, if they invest in community solar, is 10 percent,” Wight said in an interview Wednesday. He said the federal Department of Energy has set a goal of boosting those savings to 20 percent of co-op members’ bills by 2025.

Wight said federal support for community solar projects should encourage Golden Valley’s board to move ahead on the program.

“This is an exciting moment, because the Department of Energy is so focused on this,” he said.

solar panels
Some solar panels, like these at the Cold Climate Housing Research Center in Fairbanks, are mounted on poles or frames instead of on a rooftop. (From CCHRC)

If Golden Valley adopts the community solar program, it could be the first in the state. Anchorage-based Chugach Electric, Alaska’s largest utility, proposed a community solar program five years ago, but state regulators rejected it in 2019 as unworkable. A Chugach spokesperson said Wednesday the utility is re-visiting the idea.

Wight said both initiatives are long overdue.

“We’ve had community solar in the United States since 2007,” he said. “What’s changed now is that it’s almost ubiquitous, and Alaska is just behind the curve. And we’ve got to catch up.”

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, community solar projects were located in 39 states and the District of Columbia as of December 2021. NREL said 22 states, including the District of Columbia, have policies that support community solar.

Those policies have helped utilities and nonprofit organizations establish and operate community solar projects, said Wight, who’s also an assistant professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He’s now working with two Anchorage-based nonprofits, the Alaska Center and Alaska Public Interest Research Group, to draft legislation that would help promote community solar projects in the state. He said the measure will be introduced in the coming legislative session.

DeLong said he expects Golden Valley staff to complete a review of the MAC task force findings by the middle of next year. And he said if it’s favorable and the board moves ahead on the program, GVEA will begin filing for tariffs with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska by the end of 2023.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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