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Construction of Alaska’s largest solar project kicks off in Houston

What will become Alaska’s largest solar panel farm has led the way in Houston, with plans to power 1,400 homes when power begins next summer, developers say.

The 8.5 megawatt project could also lead to larger solar panel farms in Alaska, after a big solar energy investor joined the project.

New York-based CleanCapital, owner of more than 200 solar projects across the United States, will own the Houston solar panel farm.

The company recently took a minority stake in Renewable IPP, an Alaskan company founded by former employees of the oil company BP. In 2019, Renewable IPP developed what is currently Alaska’s largest solar farm, in Willow, northwest of Houston.

The two partner companies are already exploring sites where they can launch additional solar projects in the state, representatives said.

Their efforts come amid concerns over the long-term supply of natural gas from Cook Inlet, Alaska’s main energy source, and after Homer Utilities in Fairbanks offered $200 million in upgrades to support more renewable projects.

“We see a lot of opportunity in Alaska,” CleanCapital chief commercial officer Julia Bell said Monday. “There’s a lot of interest from utilities and stakeholders to have more renewables, so we’re really optimistic about that.”

[Solar power heats up in Alaska]

For now, the companies are focused on their Houston project, where crews have begun clearing land on part of a 160-acre lot west of the community’s middle and high school.

Only 45 acres of the land will be developed for the installation of solar panels, said Jenn Miller, managing director of Renewable IPP and a former BP engineer who grew up in Eagle River.

More than 14,000 panels will be installed in 20 rows.

“My arms hurt just thinking about it,” Miller said. She and her Renewable IPP business partners plan to help with the installation, she said.

The project is expected to generate around 35 construction jobs and at least 15 part-time maintenance jobs, she said.

It will produce more than six times the power of Project Willow, nearly doubling solar power generation in Alaska, she said.

Solar panels have become more efficient in recent years, she said, and in Houston only half the land area will be needed to produce the same amount of power as Project Willow.

The new solar panels will absorb sunlight from both sides, an improvement over Willow’s panels, which means an extra boost of snow on the ground.

The Houston project will also allow blueberries and cranberries to grow between rows of panels, she said. It requires relatively little clearing, as some of the land was burned in the Miller’s Reach fire in 1996.

“We’re trying to be more environmentally friendly because we’re doing more,” Miller said.

The Borough of Matanuska-Susitna signed a 34-year lease for the land, said Tracy McDaniel, the borough’s asset manager. Lease payments are relatively inexpensive during project development, but later will be based on fair market value.

“The idea is to generate economic development,” she said. “This land hasn’t been desirable to anyone for many years, but Renewable IPP doesn’t need the perfect land with a good base of 100% usable gravel. So it’s just fine.

Under a 25-year deal, power will be sold to the Matanuska Electric Association starting at 0.067 cents per kilowatt hour, with small annual increases, Miller said.

The project will help diversify energy sources and stabilize electricity prices in Alaska, according to a statement from Matanuska Electric, which supplies electricity to Eagle River and the Matanuska-Susitna region.

“Membership surveys indicate that people want MEA to generate more electricity with renewable energy, but not at an additional cost,” said Tony Izzo, CEO of the Matanuska Electric Association. “We believe this project achieves that goal while helping MEA responsibly meet the council’s carbon reduction targets.”

Miller said she and the other Renewable IPP founders formed the company after discovering the benefits of small rooftop solar installations on their homes. The business has evolved as it has grown, she says.

CleanCapital helped Renewable IPP refine its business plans, Miller said. The companies are investigating the potential development of a solar panel farm on land in the Kenai Peninsula borough that would produce about four times the power of Houston’s next project.

Miller said solar power provides less than 0.5% of Alaska’s electricity, though it’s growing.

The state’s energy portfolio could look more like Germany’s, she said. Germany receives a similar amount of sunlight as Alaska, but about 10% of its electricity comes from solar power, she said.

“We don’t have the best solar resource in the world, but it’s a good enough solar resource, and we can provide it economically to consumers, so it has great potential for growth,” Miller said.

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