Researchers test the energy potential of winter sunlight

Fairbanks scientists study whether solar panels are reliable

Posted: Monday, December 24, 2007

FAIRBANKS - Researchers want to find out if interior Alaska's fleeting winter sunlight can be harnessed for energy.

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The Cold Climate Housing Research Center has started solar panel studies to see if sun power can be used in combination with biomass energy for a reliable renewable energy source.

"That was the whole idea," said center president Jack Hebert on the day before winter solstice. "Why not start this thing on the coldest, darkest day of the year?"

On Thursday, it was about 35 degrees below zero in Fairbanks and the sun was just coming up at 11 a.m. The air was thick with ice fog.

This fall, CCHRC installed four tracking arrays of photovoltaic solar panels as part of its Hybrid Micro-Energy Project, which will use solar and biomass energy to make power and heat. The intent is to rely on the sun in the summer and wood in the winter.

But CCHRC is a research facility, and Hebert and research director John Davies wanted to study the effectiveness of the solar panels in the Far North year-round.

The four arrays have a combined capacity of a little more than 10 kilowatts, or enough to power about 10 homes. On Thursday morning, they were producing one-one-thousandth of their capacity. The 10 watts were not enough to power one incandescent light bulb.

"The fact that we're getting any electricity at all is encouraging," Hebert said.

The panels are wired into a research lab at the center where four small inverters record energy production and convert the power into a form that can be fed into the electric grid. The system is set up with monitors that will allow the center to track the intensity of the sun and the effect of light reflecting off snow.

Greg Egan, who runs Fairbanks-based Remote Power Inc., designed the solar power system. He said glare from snow could help.

In October, a small installation a dozen miles from the Arctic Ocean was producing near capacity, he said. The sun was low on the horizon but there was a flat plain of snow leading up to the panels.

Hebert, only half-joking, said they might even try making power from moonlight.

The center is testing three kinds of solar panels, including one with snow on it and another with snow swept off. The center will share what it learns on its Web site and gather information from other people using solar power in Alaska.

Part of the goal is to help individuals and whole communities assess how well a solar installation would work for them. With the high price of diesel fuel and tax credits for renewable energy, solar power is starting to look good for rural communities, Egan said.

The center will sell whatever solar power it produces through a Golden Valley Electric Association program that allows co-op members to subsidize alternative energy.

Funding for the micro-energy project came from BP, the state, the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

At noon, Hebert put on a down parka and walked outside to the solar panels, installed on metal bases beside the center's driveway. The sun was unseen, hidden behind low trees, clouds and ice fog.

Hebert said he figured the panels would really start producing in late January or early February. By mid-June, they should be making power 22 hours a day.

Interior Alaska annually gets much less solar radiation than locations on the equator. But it gets about the same number of daylight hours per year, and in the summer, the land of the midnight sun outshines most other places.

"We may very well generate more electricity from the sun than they do at the equator," Hebert said as frost settled on his beard.

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