Can Solar Work in the Arctic?

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by James Ellsmoor
PV Solar Report Guest Contributor

The Arctic might not be the first region most people would think of for solar power installations. But renewable energy companies are increasingly looking north for new investment opportunities.

Although many presume that this region has little potential for solar energy, that assumption has been refuted by a number of academics carrying out research there, as well as private companies with a growing presence in the area. In fact, Alaska has a solar resource potential roughly comparable to that of Germany, the world’s leader in photovoltaic capacity. But so far this potential has been underutilized.

Researchers at the Nothern Research Institute (Norut) in Norway have worked to prove the economic viability of solar in even the most northerly latitudes. One of these academics is Professor Tobias Boström. He says, “A key myth is that people think it’s too cold and dark in the Arctic so it’s not possible, but that’s just not true. That’s the biggest challenge for us, to convince people that it really is possible.” To make this point, Boström has successfully run a test plant in Piteå, Northern Sweden, equipped with trackers to orientate the panels toward the sun. This site produces 28Mwh annually and has proved to be economically viable.

Photovoltaic panels function more efficiently in cold but sunny climates. Many panels are capable of delivering 110% of their rated output in colder climates, while warmer areas may see substantially reduced output as higher temperatures decrease the effective output. Combined with 24-hour summer sunlight, this gives polar regions an enviable advantage for generating solar energy.

However, the next logical step is to question the winter months. What happens in the long, dark periods of no sunshine? Boström and his team argue that despite these more unproductive months, the larger volumes of electricity generated in the summer still make solar economically desirable. Future projects will account for complementary wind and solar resources in the region, and continued improvements in battery storage technology. Together, these two factors could result in year-round renewable generation in the near future.

Isolated off-grid communities stand to benefit the most from the introduction of renewables. These populations often pay up to the equivalent of $2/Kwh and rely on diesel generators. By reducing the need for expensive fossil fuel imports, they can quickly recoup costs for their initial investment and enjoy large savings in the longer term.

Specialist companies, with knowledge of indigenous communities and working in harsh climates, are vital to take renewables to more remote areas and spread information about the benefits available. One such company is Arctic Sun LCC of Fairbanks, which recently completed an 18kW installation on the roof of the tribal hall in Fort Yukon, 8 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This project was financed by both the tribe and a federal grant, and is expected to deliver significant savings to the community.

Solar also offers great potential for on-grid communities. While the Alaskan government is traditionally orientated toward fossil fuels, small private companies are taking a lead in promoting solar. But the state still receives scant attention from the large installation companies, most of whom have little or no presence in Alaska. As Alaskan customers are waking up to the benefits that solar can offer, more national companies should look north to a largely untapped market right on their doorstep.

While so much work is being done on oil extraction in the region, it seems that attention also needs to be given to the very real possibilities that solar energy can now offer Alaska, and the rest of the Arctic.

James Ellsmoor1James Ellsmoor is Director of Project Development at Solar Head of State, an advocacy organization that works with governments to promote solar-friendly policies. James focuses on promoting the benefits of solar energy for small island developing states (SIDS) and the polar regions. Originally from the UK, he now studies rural development and renewable energy policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Connect with James on Twitter and LinkedIn.

 

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