By Art Nash, Energy Specialist
For many home or cabin owners, solar has become a cost-effective consideration the last couple years — even in Alaska. The cost savings of installing solar as your primary energy source varies widely on conditions and locations throughout the state.
The question of whether solar is worth the investment, or yields a quick payback time, is dependent largely on how much you now pay for a kilowatt of electricity and the cost of buying the panels. The price of the racks to mount the panels, tracking equipment if you desire to use it and batteries should also be considered in the cost.
Batteries are needed if you want to use the energy you produce. Typically, they are deep cycle and can vary in voltage; most often, several are purchased and strung together. They can be expensive, and they take a fair amount of 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” or storage.
In Alaska, the amount the utility pays for your solar-generated energy is going to be only a portion of what you pay for electricity per kilowatt. And that is if your local utility will buy your electricity. That may depend on the utility’s overall load it supplies for other customers.
The amount of solar power you can harness increases with snow-free, clear skies and cold weather. Solar gain decreases for about a month and a half or so before and after Christmas. Depending on the site location, terrain, standing trees, etc., it is possible to receive some solar gain for those three months, yet it will most likely be negligible due to the low arc of the sun.
For the most solar gain, it is best to point stationary panels at a southeast angle to the sun. And position them at whatever degree of latitude you are located at. Since Fairbanks is at 64 degrees latitude, then that is the angle to point the panels toward the sun. The caveat is that 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 and they are not obscured with tree shadows, then it may be just as advantageous to put your panels straight up and down. Though this is not the most optimal level for straight-on solar gain, sometimes by having the panel at 90 degrees you can catch enough solar off the snow’s reflection to almost make up the difference. This position keeps the snow off.
There is a lot of technical information that a home consumer will want to know before investing in panels. The best resource I know of is the UAF Cooperative Extension’s “A Solar Design Manual for Alaska,” which is recently updated in conjunction with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. The manual is available online for free through the ACEP or Extension websites. A print copy can also be ordered for $15 through Extension. The manual has sun charts, great illustrations and good information.
The initial section gives a simple background of solar energy as well as some of the important concepts that guide solar use, with particular discussion of Alaska-specific solar considerations.
The next major section, on photovoltaic technologies, covers solar for electric uses. This section explains different parts of solar systems, some common misperceptions and considerations on picking out solar photovoltaic equipment for your home or business.
A new section describes possibilities for extending the greenhouse season. It covers solar geometry at high latitudes, shading and snow effects. In the appendix is a piece on greenhouse warming with solar, heat storage and heat distribution.
This is a very basic survey on solar panels in Alaska. Give me a ring if I can answer more detailed questions or refer you to experts on particular applications. You can reach me at 474-6366 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art Nash is the Extension energy and radon specialist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. Contact him at (907)474-6366 or by email at email@example.com