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Sun shines on Kodiak as housing group reaps benefits of stimulus-funded solar project

Posted: August 28, 2011 - 9:07pm

KODIAK — For the past year, Kodiak Island Housing Authority has been looking to the skies for an answer to rising fuel prices.

The authority has turned to solar power to cut costs at several of its living complexes on Kodiak Island, using federal stimulus money to pay for solar panels to supplement hot water heaters.

While it might sound strange to rely on the sun on rain-shrouded Kodiak, housing authority executive director Marty Shuravloff said the island has the same average amount of sunlight as many places in the Lower 48.

“It makes as much sense as putting them in Chicago,” Shuravloff said.

When Kodiak Island Housing Authority (KIHA) factored in the high cost of fuel in villages across the island, switching to solar made even more sense.

Most KIHA complexes use boilers to provide hot water and heat. While that makes sense in winter, it doesn’t in summer.

“Typically in the summer, you don’t need that heat,” said KIHA project director Rick Lindholm, who oversaw the project.

KIHA had been looking at alternative energy for a while, he said, and when stimulus funding came to KIHA through an automatic process, they had the money to put plans into action.

The initial thought was to use solar panels to generate electricity, which could then be fed back into village electrical grids, but Lindholm said most villages weren’t set up to absorb that kind of electricity and reimburse KIHA.

With direct generation out, KIHA switched to the plan to produce hot water.

Through a bidding process, they turned to Scott’s Plumbing and Heating of Kodiak, which did much of the work installing the panels.

Owner Scott Pillans said the systems are “not very common here; this was the largest project on Kodiak island.”

He spent last summer floating around the island, staging crews from his boat in most places to save money.

“Cost is an issue,” Pillans said, but, “When you get fuel oil that’s six, seven, $10 a gallon, it starts paying off quicker.”

Pillans said the systems work “like a radiator to your car.” The heat of the sun, even shrouded by clouds, is transmitted to black rooftop panels containing lines filled with a glycol mix. The mix is warmed by the sun and flows down through a loop that passes through the home’s water heater. A pump returns the mix to the roof to circulate again. In cold weather, the system shuts off to avoid cooling the system.

“These things are simple,” he said, “and every one just went right in.”

For a private homeowner who doesn’t have the benefit of a stimulus grant, it can get expensive, Pillans said.

“I’d be somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000” to install one in a home, he said, though the total cost will vary depending on the size of the home and other factors.

A $1.8 million grant paid for KIHA’s project, including both the heating equipment and the construction of a machinery room at each home. Lindholm and Shuravloff said the cost worked out to between $12,000 and $13,000 per house, thanks to savings from buying parts in bulk.

KIHA isn’t the only group trying to offset energy costs with the sun. Pillans said Scott’s is using a similar system in its office for radiant floor heating, and there are seven more projects in town, including three large commercial systems.

“It’s not cheap, but it does work, and it’s just up to the individual,” Pillans said.

As for KIHA, Shuravloff said he’s still waiting for a full year of data before making up his mind on the success of the project. There are 42 systems in the villages and another seven in town, and initial results appear promising, he said. In February, homes in Larsen Bay still generated hot water even without power, a powerful argument in favor of solar’s success.

While KIHA has focused on weatherization and energy efficiency programs for the past 10 years, Shuravloff said, the solar project could be the first step in another direction.

“We’re looking at wind generation as well if it works out,” he said.

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