Alaska village flips switch on solar array | Polarjournal
Shungnak’s 225kW solar array (Photo: Agneto)

Make hay while the sun shines, goes the old saw. In the North, it is not hay, but electricity that communities would like to produce during its sun-rich, but fleeting summer. For, if it were possible to store all that sunshine somehow, off-the-grid communities would be less dependent on expensive, high-maintenance diesel generators.

To get an idea of what is at stake, consider Shungnak, Alaska. An Iñupiat village that is home to about 300, it dependent on the diesel that must be delivered by barge during the summer months, or, occasionally, flown in when the situation requires — and the need justifies the additional cost.

Until this month, Shungnak’s diesel generators burned 590,000 litres a year, and ran constantly. Now, they will be allowed to fall silent for extended periods, and not just when he sun is shining, after a 225 kW solar array (pictured above and below) and 32 kWh battery storage system came into service. At peak production periods, the system will just about off-set the the village’s normal power use, which ranges between 200kW and 300kW. Over the course of a year however, the amount of solar power the array will only be able to offset about 20% of the diesel that Shungnak uses. 

Much of the focus of the project has been on bringing down the cost of operating Shungnak’s microgrid: the computer that runs the system is set to have the diesel generator kick in when it is less expensive than to operate the solar array. But there will be some other tangible benefits, such as reduced noise and air pollution during periods when the generator is off. 

Worth its weight in 113,000 litres of diesel (Photo: Blue Planet Energy)

Other off-grid communities will be keeping an eye on how things go in Shungnak; the fuel needed to keep their generators running must be barged or flown in, and residents need to use time to keep the generators running in the extreme cold. Add to that looming concerns that state lawmakers could reduce fuel subsidies for rural-power generation and there is every reason why they might want to install an array of their own.

Shungnak, specifically, provides yet another good reason why solar is a bright idea for rural communities: in 2020, an accident that led to the spill of 68,000 litres of heating oil nearly fouled the village’s drinking water and the nearby Kobuk River, an important source of the community’s food.

Kevin McGwin, PolarJournal

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