Talking about solar energy on the cusp of spring might seem optimistic. While daylight gets longer and the temperature warms, the weather flips between gloomy clouds and brisk winds. Last Thursday, March 22, at a presentation, “Solar Energy in Alaska,” at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, speakers gushed with enthusiasm.
“It’s a visionary thing to talk solar in March with snow on the ground,” said Ben May, owner of Anchorage Solar, a solar photovoltaic power installer. “We do know the sun is coming.”
After the talk, May had reason to be positive. About 35 people attended the presentation, but out of that — and through some word of mouth — May visited 17 homes in four days to do site visits. He also installed a new system in the West Hill neighborhood.
“Homer is hip,” he said Tuesday in a follow-up interview. “In the modern vernacular, Homer is woke.”
Interest locally in solar energy follows a national trend. May said that between 1986 and 2016, Americans installed 1 million solar energy systems. In the past two years, 1 million more projects have gone in, some of them large, utility-scale arrays.
Moderated by Kyra Wagner, director of Sustainable Homer, an information group advocating things like renewable energy and locally grown food, the presentation featured May, Wagner and Jessie Huff, state energy coordinator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Palmer. They talked about how solar panels work, the economics of solar energy, how people in Homer have already put in projects and how federal programs and tax incentives can help fund the cost of residential and commercial solar energy.
Solar energy has reached a tipping point because of advances in technology and reduced costs, May said. In Alaska 30 years ago, solar panels cost $8 a watt. Now the cost has dropped to 70 cents a watt.
“It was pretty tough for people to get into it,” May said of solar energy pioneers. “Solar power was for the desperate,” like remote lodges.
Now, solar energy has become cheap enough, May pitches it as an investment. Installation of a 3,000-watt household system has dropped from $60,000 to $10,000. In Homer, where Homer Electric Association charges about 22 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh), a homeowner can save about $612 a year in energy costs for the average residential system of 3,000 watts. Through the USDA, homeowners can get a 30 percent tax incentive, cutting the $10,200 cost to $7,140. That yields an 8.5-percent annual return on the investment as expressed in energy savings.
“People in cloudy Homer could make as much or more than a mutual fund,” May said. “…It now makes financial sense. When I talk to people, that’s what it comes down to: Is this a good place to put my stored up energy, also known as money?”
The boom in solar energy has come about not only because of a dramatic decrease in the cost of photovoltaic panels — the shiny squares of plastic and electronics that convert heat and light into electricity — but new technology and increased efficiency. Inverters in panels control the flow of energy. In old systems, if a shadow fell across a panel, the whole network shut down. Now, electronics can keep the lit panels going even if one section goes dark. Efficiency also has improved and it’s not as critical for panels to be raised on brackets to face the sun. Solar panels can be installed flat against a pitched roof.
At the same time, utility companies such as HEA have adopted net metering. That means if a home or business owner produces excess power, it goes back into the electrical grid and the customer receives a credit, reflected as a savings on a bill.
“It’s really hit the point where people like me have gone into the business and want to make it happen,” May said. “It means we’re making a global solution to reduce the effect on our carbon footprint.”
Wagner and her husband Neil were some of the early adopters of solar energy in Homer, putting a system in at their East End Road home about 2009 “when it wasn’t cool,” she said. They installed panels mounted on poles with motors that move to track the sun.
“The benefit, it is a nice yard ornament,” Wagner said, joking. “It does have entertainment value.”
The Wagners also set up a monitoring system to track energy production and gathered some early data for solar production on the lower peninsula. Kyra Wagner showed a chart illustrating amounts of kilowatt hours generated from 2009-2018. In the dark months of December and January, they generated from 20 to 75 kWh over the years. About March a graph showed a spike in energy. In May of 2014 production hit 509 kWh.
At Oceanside Farms near Mile 5 East End Road, Donna Rae Faulkner and Don McNamara installed 36 solar panels that produce about 10,500 watts. They use the system to power their farm, including fans for seven high tunnels and cooling for a root cellar. To warm the high tunnels, they also put in thermal solar panels — low-tech solar power made of insulated boxes with insect screen painted black and a clear window. Fans push warm air into the high tunnels. McNamara said solar heated high tunnels are now 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than other high tunnels.
“Every boost helps,” McNamara said.
Oceanside Farms benefitted from a USDA energy program that pays up to 25 percent of the cost for an eligible commercial business, including farms. Homeowners and businesses also can get a 30-percent tax incentive for renewable energy. Huff of the USDA said businesses also can get rebates for energy audits.
May said an analysis he did for a Homer business showed the $20,000 cost drops to $5,600 after applying the 30-percent tax incentive, the 25 percent USDA grant and a depreciation deduction. With electrical savings of $1,200, that’s a 21 percent annual return on investment. May said Homer has several factors going for it in terms of solar energy, especially its geography.
“Everybody is tilted up looking south with their homes,” he said. “People build wide homes with more windows toward that bay to get that view.”
That also means trees and brush that would obscure views have been cleared.
The higher cost of electricity — 22 cents per kWh for HEA compared to 18 cents per kWh for Anchorage — also makes solar energy more attractive.
“The value of solar is greater because you get more monetary gain from it,” May said.
Homer also has a strong environmental ethic, May noted, where people want to reduce their use of fossil fuels. The carbon offset of a 3,000-watt system is the equivalent of driving a car for nine years, May noted.
But what really drives interest in Homer is its community mindedness, May said.
“The community connections are really strong,” he said. “They share with their friends and neighbors. Just the networking is something I wasn’t quite used to. Just because of that, wow, Homer has a pent-up demand for solar. It really works.”