HEA shoots for 2018 solar project completion

Homer Electric Association is hoping to have its small-scale solar project online by the end of the 2018 construction season, said HEA Director of Power, Fuels and Dispatch Larry Jorgensen.

Jorgensen will give a public presentation at 5 p.m. Thursday on the solar plans during HEA’s energy technology workshops at Kenai Peninsula College’s Ward Building. Other presentations will look at electric vehicles, home energy efficiency and heat pumps.

Financing is among the project specifics still undecided. HEA has previously considered a model in which members who choose to buy into the solar installation recieve output proportional to their shares. HEA has also considered contracting the project’s construction and operation to a third party from whom they’d purchase power.

“Everything’s still on the table at this point,” Jorgensen said of cost and financing.

HEA is also deciding on the project’s location, primarily looking to keep its cost down by placing it near an existing transmission substation.

“Otherwise the cost of running a powerline to the new site would be quite prohibitive,” Jorgensen said.

How much available space could be covered with solar panels is another decisive factor for the location.

“The problem with Alaska is we’re so far north, the space required really stretches out,” Jorgensen said. “The sun is so low on the horizon, you’ve got to space (the panels) quite a ways apart… It does make for an efficiency use factor.”

HEA had previously considered using solar units that rotate their panels to follow the sun, generating more power with the same number of units. But space is also a constraint here — rotating units need more, meaning fewer can go into the same area, cancelling out their efficiency.

“If you’re limited on area, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Jorgensen said. “So right now we’re most likely looking at flat panels.”

The project’s generating capacity will be relatively small. Depending on location, Jorgensen said capacity would be between 500 kilowatts and 1 megawatt. For comparison, HEA’s planned hydroelectric facility on Moose Pass’s Grant Lake — a relatively small generator itself — would produce 5 megawatts.

HEA is presently writing the solar project’s request for proposals, a document for soliciting construction contractors that will nail down its technical specifications. Jorgensen said it should be out by the end of the year.

The HEA solar installation won’t be the only one arriving in Alaska in the near future. On Oct. 26, Chugach Electric Association announced a 500-kilowatt solar project estimated to cost about $2 million, paid by share-holding members in a way similar to the member-financed model HEA may consider. Jorgensen said Fairbanks’ Golden Valley Electrical Association is also considering a solar project.

A tariff proposal on imported solar units, pending before the U.S International Trade Commission, could impact all three projects by raising the price of solar equipment. According to Ars Technica technology magazine, the cheap Chinese solar panels targeted by the proposal made up 21 percent of the U.S. solar market in 2016.

In September, International Trade Commission members unanimously decided that cheaper foreign solar panel imports damaged the business of the two U.S solar manufacturers, Suniva and SolarWorld, who brought the case before them. The decision gives President Donald Trump’s administration authority to set tariffs on imported panels.

Suniva — which blames Chinese government-subsidized competition for its April bankruptcy — proposed a tariff that would create a 78 cents-per-watt minimum price for imported solar modules, a two-thirds increase for the cheapest units presently on the market, according to Fortune Magazine.

By Nov. 13 the International Trade Commission will present recommendations to Trump’s administration, which will have until Jan. 12, 2018 to decide on a tariff, according to Forbes.

The outcome of that decision would have a large effect on the cost of the project, Jorgensen said.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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