Kake school students help lift one of the solar arrays.
Angel Drobnica, center, and other members of the solar array installment team.
Story last updated at 6/12/2013 - 2:04 pm
The cost of living in rural Alaska towns is expensive. Kake is becoming an energy efficient village by building in solar energy and looking at the feasibility of wind energy.
Southeast Alaska Conservation Council has been working with the Organized Village of Kake to figure out ways to make this happen.
Angel Drobnica, SEACC's former energy coordinator, first started visiting the community to talk about what their energy concerns are following the village's receipt of a federal grant to pursue sources of alternative energy.
"The objective was to identify energy-related information gaps in the community for projects like wind, hydro and solar power, and how to jump start those initiatives," Drobnica said. "That was really aligned with what we were doing at SEACC."
By "aligned," Drobnica said SEACC's goal is to increase communities' engagement in energy discussions.
"This takes the form of seeding small-scale energy projects that people can get excited about, that they can help participate in, involve schools, tribal members, some general community members," she said.
Drobnica, and her successor, Todd Bailey, said that Kake was a prime candidate to work with because of the community's high-energy costs. Drobnica said the grant's purpose was to assist communities who had identified a particular need.
The first approach was to look at wind power options. SEACC purchased an anemometer, an instrument that gauges average wind speeds over specific periods of time, measures how variable the wind speed is and from what direction it's blowing.
By the time Drobnica came on board an anemometer had been in Kake for around a year.
"(It) showed good potential," Drobnica said, "But the problem was it was too far from the town and the transmission line would have been pretty cost-prohibitive."
The tower has been relocated closer to town, and data from the new location will be analyzed in the future. In the mean time, SEACC wanted to continue the pursuit of addressing the high energy costs.
"Wind can be really high maintenance, where as solar - you put up (a system) and leave it," Drobnica said. "There's no moving parts."
Working towards installing a solar power system in the community, Drobnica said, has more than just a cost-reducing effect.
"It gives ownership and education and empowers people to engage in these discussions and projects while larger scale projects are waiting to be developed," she said. "Larger projects can take a long time. Smaller projects can have an effect now."
In addition, Drobnica said the costs for solar power systems have significantly decreased over the last two years. Benefits aside, solar has a bad rap.
"Solar is dismissed (in Alaska) because of the lack of sun," Drobnica said.
But the combination of high energy costs with the relatively low consumption of energy in Kake, made the idea of putting the federal grant money towards a solar energy system a logical project.
"We switched directions," Drobnica said. "We asked for a modification of the grant. We started seeking out bids from installers in the state. We looked them over, chose one and started working."
Drobnica said SEACC's role was to help the community select a site for the system, taking into consideration land designated for historic preservation, determine what kind of system to use, and organize and facilitate the project.
Bailey elaborated on the benefits of solar power in communities like Kake.
"The things that make solar attractive to this community are that it's immediate, there's no permitting process like would be required for a dam or studies for wind, it is very scalable, it's renewable and it's not a one- size-fits all," he said, adding that a solar system can be designed in countless configurations to meet a variety of criteria.
Drobnica said they attempted to select the best system for the budget. She said they selected a 6 kilowatt project, which consisted of two pole-mounted 12-paneled arrays. One was fixed, pointing due south, and the other moves with the sun. In addition, each of the 12 panels that compose each array are outfitted with an individual micro-inverter, an instrument that can read the energy production rate of each panel.
Bailey said the micro-inverters allow for an Internet connection to display a variety data about the solar system, such as the historical production, the energy output over the last week, the last month, the last year, and associated graphs. Remotely, one can see the activity of each individual panel - or inactivity. Bailey was dispatched this winter to reconnect a downed signal. The data also illustrates how much more productive the tracking system is over fixed system.
Installing the solar panel system was a community-wide effort, Drobnica said, and the members were quite resourceful. They found old 18-inch pilings to use as the poles, saving round $3,000 to $4,000. Bailey said they mixed up the concrete foundations by hand, in one day, in the rain. School groups joined the effort every day.
The two arrays were completed in October of 2012.
Gary Williams, the executive director of the Organized Village of Kake, said that SEACC helped the community learn how to use the system's planning tool as well as monitor its progress.
"SEACC was able to help us predict the solar potential and make projections based on weather history," Williams said. "What I find very interesting is that it's so close to being right on the money; it's certainly a success."
As Drobnica said, the production of solar energy in Kake is more like moon-lighting: a little extra income, but not the full mortgage.
"It's just increasing the productivity, but it's not the answer," she said. "I think it's an exciting project for the community because it gives them tangible results on the ground and doesn't seem too distant. My hopes for the future, are, of course, that (Kake and other) communities are able to subsist and affordable energy is key to that. They are small but really important ways to get them in that direction. I really think it's a model that could be replicated through the region, instead of disparate efforts taking place."
As the goal was to show that alternative options do indeed exist, and ignite some interest, then SEACC has been successful.
"Folks are interested in the possibilities." Williams said. "One person has purchased some panels for his own home. It's in a visible location; people drive by it every day. It's a good thing. People can see it working."