Golden Valley Electric Association highlighted the utility’s new solar-energy array and its other renewable-energy efforts during Thursday’s annual members meeting. Completed last fall, it’s the biggest solar farm in Alaska, designed to power 70 homes. And now that it's spring, Golden Valley will finally be able to assess its performance.
Golden Valley’s 3-acre solar farm on Fairbanks’s South Side went online in early October, a few weeks after the utility commissioned Healy 2, its newest coal-burning power plant. The solar farm is designed to generate just over half a megawatt. But electrical engineer Nathan Minnema says he can’t yet confirm that output, because the facility’s been nearly dormant since it went online.
“We did not generate nary a kilowatt hour from about Thanksgiving timeframe until, like, Presidents Day,” he said. “Zero, nil, zilch.”
Minnema says the solar farm finally began to produce enough electricity earlier this year to enable Golden Valley to gather data on how much power it can generate, and how that can be integrated into the utility’s grid.
“So we started seeing production come up right in the beginning of March, end of February,” he said, “and I suspect we’ll be producing until like Thanksgiving.”
Minnema says Golden Valley asked him to help with the project in 2017 after some ratepayers and members of the utility’s Member Advisory Committee urged the management and board of directors to add solar power to the utility’s portfolio. He says Golden Valley initially considered a larger 5-megawatt facility, but settled on the scaled-down version, which he says is better-suited for Golden Valley’s experimental solar-power venture.
“The smaller-scale project is an initial investigation into the operation and performance of a utility-size solar project in Alaska, or in Fairbanks,” he said.
The facility cost $1.1 million. Golden Valley paid about $850,000, and a grant covered the remainder.
Minnema estimates the facility will pay for itself in about 25 years, which is the useful life of its nearly 1,800 solar panels. But he says Golden Valley’s biggest payoff will be the knowledge and experience it gains in collecting and using solar energy in the far north.