Does it pay to install solar panels in Alaska?
October 1, 2018
With the cost of solar panels having dropped from about seven dollars to a single dollar for an (uninstalled) watt, for many, solar has become a cost effective consideration —even in Alaska. The resulting cost savings of installing solar as your primary energy source varies widely on conditions and location throughout the state. And the telltale sign as to whether it is worth the investment, or will, in other words yield a quick ‘pay back’ time, is dependent largely on how much you now pay for a kilowatt of electricity, which you would be sub-planting with your own electricity should you put up a solar system. Also considered in cost is the price of the racks to mount the panels, tracking equipment if you so desire to use it, and then the big expenditure of batteries.
Batteries are needed if you want to use the energy you produce from the panels yourself. Typically they are deep cycle and can vary in voltage. Several are purchased and strung together. They can be expensive cost-wise, yet they also take a fair amount of timely, yet not extensive, maintenance. If you are willing to ‘sell’ the energy to a local utility even though you buy your home energy from that utility, you are wisely using the electrical grid as your battery, so to speak. Now the cost they buy your solar generated energy for is going to be only a portion of what you pay for kilowatt to kilowatt. And that is if your local utility will buy your electricity. Much of that depends on the scale of the utility’s overall load they supply for other customers.
While the amount of solar you can gain energy from varies with how snow free, cloudy or cold your area of Alaska is, my one one rule of thumb (which pretty much is the same across the state) is this: Don’t count on solar gain 45 days either side of Christmas. Depending on the site location, terrain, standing trees, etc., is isn’t impossible to receive solar gain for those three months, yet it will most likely be negligible due to the low arc of the sun at that time.
Now for the most solar gain, if panels are stationary it is best to point them at the southeast angle to the sun. And position them at whatever degree of latitude you are located at. So, since Fairbanks’ latitude is 64 degrees, then that is the angle to point the panels toward the sun. The caveat is that the snow needs to carefully be cleared from the panel to catch the solar gain.
If for some reason you have a cleared field in front of your solar panels, which is not obscured with shadows from trees, then it may be just as advantageous in this case to put your panels straight up and down. Though this is not the most optimal level for straight on solar gain to the face of the panel, sometimes by having the panel at 90 degrees you can catch enough solar off the snow’s reflection to make up the difference. And, it keeps the snow off.
There is a lot of technical information that a home consumer will want to know before investing in panels, of which there are other types for other purposes than making electricity. The best resource I know of is the new UAF Cooperative Extension Solar Design Manual, which was just published for Alaskan conditions and is online for free at our Alaska Center for Energy and Power co-writers’ site: http://acep.uaf.edu/media/260463/EEM-01255_SolarDesignManual_5thEd201805.pdf. It has sun charts, great illustrations and good information.
The initial section gives a simple background of solar energy is as well as some of the important physical concepts that guide solar use (with particular discussion of Alaska-specific solar considerations).
The next major section covers solar for electric uses (called photovoltaic technologies). In the previous edition of this manual it was described as a major emerging option. This section explains different parts of solar systems, some common misperceptions, and considerations on picking out solar PV equipment for your home or business.
Also, a section is added that describes the possibilities of heating domestic or commercial hot water. Covered are solar geometry at high latitudes, shading, and snow effects. In the appendix is a piece on greenhouse warming with solar, heat storage and distribution with plants of solar heat.
Though this is a very basic survey on solar panels in Alaska, you can see that they can be used in Alaska. Give me a ring if I can ever answer more detailed questions or refer you to experts on particular applications.
Art Nash is an Energy Specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Extension. Contact him at 907-474-6366.