Mat-Su Borough welcomes Alaska’s biggest solar farm

A crowd of people gather in front of solar panels as those in the front hold a yellow ribbon that is about to be cut by two people holding large scissors.
Chris Colbert (center left) and Jenn Miller (center right) of Renewable Independent Power Producers prepare to cut the ribbon on the opening of the new solar farm located in Houston, Alaska on Tuesday. (Adam Nicely/Alaska Public Media)

Alaska’s largest solar farm was unveiled on Tuesday in the city of Houston, about an hour north of Anchorage. The project owners gathered with local and state officials to ceremoniously cut a gold ribbon with a giant pair of scissors.

The woman holding the scissors was Jenn Miller, founder and CEO of Renewable Independent Power Producers. Her company broke ground on the 45 acre project last summer, and it’s now feeding power into the Matanuska-Susitna Borough electric grid.

Miller and her team also built the state’s second biggest solar array just north of Houston in Willow. Speaking under a tent on the rainy afternoon, she said with this 8.5 megawatt farm, Alaska solar has reached a new scale.

“It’s not the first in the state, but I will say, it’s the first of a material scale,” Miller said. “It’s the first where we brought in outside investment. And with tying into the grid, you know, it’s a large enough scale that when it drops in and out, it will be noticed, it will be felt.”

Close up photo of solar array with rain droplets on them on an overcast day.
The Houston solar array covered in rain droplets. It was built with Alaska’s cloudy weather in mind, and still pencils out to save ratepayers money, officials say. (Adam Nicely/Alaska Public Media)

Matanuska Electric Association CEO Tony Izzo said the utility is actively trying to increase its renewable energy sources without increasing rates.

“This project from day one — and it was commissioned — provides energy to MEA members for less than our natural gas fired generation,” Izzo said. “In a meeting with some other representatives from Clean Capital a few months back, I think my message was: How fast can you build more of these things?”

Clean Capital is a national company that helped finance the project, and will be the long-term owner. Izzo said the Houston array could, at peak production, provide about 5% of the utility’s output. It’s expected to power about 1,400 homes.

As for the ironically rainy weather the day of the ribbon-cutting, Miller said the array was built with Alaska’s climate in mind.

“One of the things that’s unique to our solar design is that we actually oversize on the panel side, just because Alaska has so many cloudy days,” Miller said. “And so because panels have gotten so cost competitive, we’re able to kind of over-install on the panel size so that on cloudy days, we can boost our production, and it makes the project more economic overall.” 

Miller said the Houston farm is currently feeding small amounts of power into the grid for testing, but it should be fully operational by next month. Her company is currently looking at building another large solar project on the Kenai Peninsula.

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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