Matanuska Electric Associations’ board has given its management the green light to execute a purchase agreement to buy electricity from a 6 megawatt solar power facility planned to be built near Houston, north of Wasilla in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
If the contract with developer Energy 49 LLC is approved by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska and the project is built it would be the largest solar plant in the state and about six times the size of a 1.2 megawatt solar project built near Willow in 2019.
The Willow facility, which began with a 100 kilowatt test plant in 2018 and expanded to 1.2 megawatts in 2019, was built by the same team developing the larger 6 megawatt plant now planned.
Details of the proposed power purchase agreement are confidential, MEA spokesperson Julie Estey said. They will be public when the state regulatory commission gives its final blessing to the deal.
“The MEA board has made a commitment to reduce our carbon emissions by 28 percent by 2030,” Estey said in an email. “We look forward to another strong partnership with this group of renewable energy developers as a step toward that goal,” she said.
Electric utilities in the state’s “railbelt,” the Southcentral and Interior Alaska regions connected by the Alaska Railbelt, have traditionally dependent on fossil fuels, mainly natural gas in Southcentral and coal and oil in the Interior, but have also included renewable energy like hydro power from the Bradley Lake project near Homer.
In recent years the utilities’ renewable energy portfolio has expanded with wind power from Cook Inlet Region’s Fire Island wind project and wind turbines owned by Golden Valley Electric Association near Healy.
The new projects at Willow, and possibly soon in Houston, will bring solar power into the mix in a big way, although GVEA has a 563-kilowatt solar facility operating in Fairbanks mainly to test the year-around effectiveness of solar in the northern community.
“This action by the MEA board of directors demonstrates just how economic solar has become in Alaska. With solar electricity prices dropping almost 90 percent over the last decade worldwide, the sun has become a very viable local energy resource for the Railbelt, despite no production in mid-winter,” said Chris Rose of Renewable Energy Alaska, an advocacy group.
“Railbelt utilities still have a long way to go to decrease the region’s heavy dependence on expensive natural gas, but this commendable decision by MEA is a great step forward,” he said.
Renewable energy advocates say the apparent success of the 1.2 megawatt project in Wasilla and now a project six times larger near Houston, both built by private developers, demonstrates that solar power can be commercially viable in Alaska even with several darker winter months.
Solar projects can generate substantial power for all but the darker months of November and December but beginning in late January there is a substantial “snow bounce”of light reflecting off snow as days get longer. This advantage continues through the longer days of spring with snow still present.
While the pricing terms for the new solar project are still being worked out, and will be confidential until approved by regulators, typically privately-produced power is purchased by regulated utilities on an “avoided cost basis, or near what the utility’s cost would be to generate power using conventional sources like natural gas.
Renewable energy advocates say the state’s railbelt utiities need to diversify more into renewable energy because the large “legacy” gas producing fields In the Cook Inlet basin are being depleted and because Cook Inlet’s oil and gas producing infrastructure is aging, and the repairs and replacement will be costly.