Anchorage residents embracing rooftop solar cite concerns about natural gas shortfall

A man and a woman pose outside their home for a portrait.
Joe and Janice Banta outside their home in South Anchorage on Tuesday, June 18, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

On a clear, sunny day in June, Joe and Janice Banta stood in their driveway in Anchorage, awaiting a truck full of solar panels.

At midday, most of the roof of their two story house was illuminated with sun, enough for two rows of panels.

“​​It’s a sound investment.” Joe said, “We wouldn’t do it if it didn’t make sense.”

The Bantas are self-described enthusiasts of renewable energy. A single solar panel is mounted to the roof of the small fishing boat parked next to the garage. An electric car is parked at the end of the driveway. 

Janice said their sons helped influence them to try to move away from fossil fuels to renewables. As a family, she said, they’re concerned about climate change, which is driven by burning fossil fuels. And putting in solar panels is a big deal because of “the advantages to the environment,” she said.

“That’s the thing that they worry about the most really, is the future, and going in the right direction,” Janice added.

After a discount from the installer, Alaska Solar, and a federal tax credit the panels cost the Bantas $16,000. Joe expects the energy savings to fully pay off the installation cost in just over a decade, while the panels power the house, car, and even the e-bike in his garage. 

Joe said another motivator is the impending natural gas crunch along the Railbelt. If utilities have to start importing natural gas, electricity prices are expected to jump.

“That’s just a wild card out there,” Joe said. “We all have to be a little prepared.”

A man in a blue collar T-shirt explains solar panels.
Ben May, owner of Alaska Solar explains logistics for a house undergoing solar panel installments in Anchorage on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

This energy calculus is becoming more common for Alaskan homeowners. Installers like Alaska Solar say rooftop solar panel sales have been booming. In eight years of business, owner Ben May has seen significant growth. 

“The second year, I quadrupled my business thanks to Solarize,” May said, referencing a nationwide campaign to use group-purchasing power to make solar panels more affordable. 

Sales in recent years have steadied. May said this year they plan to put in about 120 systems. 

“Our growth, thank God, has not been exponential lately,” he said. 

Two workers in stall solar panels on a roof.
Sam Joling (left) and Jake McCommons (right) prepare a solar panel for installation in Anchorage on Wednesday, June 19, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

Other installers have seen this increase in demand as well. GenSolar, an installer in Fairbanks, said this year’s sales already look to be at least double last year’s. 

“​​This year it seems like it’s getting really popular, especially with that price of electricity just skyrocketing,” said Konstantin Misyuk, GenSolar’s vice president of sales and installation.

Misyuk said many of their customers finance their solar installations and even then, the monthly payments are lower than what their electricity bill would have been. 

Jordan Dubron co-owns Susitna Energy Solutions, which mostly does off-grid installations on cabins and lodges. He said there’s a “huge desire” to save on fuel costs, and the benefits come right away.

“The next month, they have no utility bill, they’re not hauling fuel, or they’re not spending X amount of money on gas delivery. So they’re seeing it pretty immediately,” Dubron said. 

May said this growth is due to a few factors. The actual cost of solar panels has dropped. Solarize campaigns and federal incentives have helped further reduce prices. 

Systems are still not cheap — but recent state legislation to help individuals finance solar projects or invest in them as a community is helping make them accessible to more people. 

May said a lot of people, like Joe, are trying to plan for the natural gas shortfall. 

“Our customers are going to be insulated from the price shock that’s going to come from having to import natural gas into Southcentral, which is a bizarre thing,” May said. “But that’s what’s coming at about 2027.”

And May said, people are beginning to understand that solar makes sense in Alaska, despite the limited winter daylight.

“We make our power in the spring, summer and fall. And then we get our power from the grid, just as we always have, in the winter. Our price of electricity is so high that it still pays off,” he said.

“While it is an extremely seasonal resource, it absolutely works,” said Chris Pike, a research engineer at UAF’s Alaska Center for Energy and Power. He tracks the number of new residential and commercial solar projects popping up on the Railbelt grid.

Net metered capacity — that is, the amount of electricity being added to the grid by homes or businesses generating solar power — jumped 32% in 2021 and 18% in 2022.

“Early on, it was increasing exponentially. It’s started to trend more linear the last couple of years,” he said. “Since about 2018, 2019, there’s between 2,000 and 3,000 kilowatts added annually. That translates to about 400 rooftop installations per year on the Railbelt.”

Pike said the advantages of rooftop solar are growing, and it seems like rooftop solar is poised to become mainstream in Alaska.

As for the Bantas, Joe said, in addition to the climate benefits and the cost savings, he’s excited about how cool they’ll look.

“We’ll be styling,” he said. “It’s kind of shiny and like a new toy.”

They’re waiting on the utility to finish hooking the new panels up to the grid. He saidys they’re looking forward to seeing their next, much lower, electricity bill.

a portrait of a woman outside

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at Read more about Kavithahere.

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