A Community of Solar - Four Families in Alaska

We are four families that live in Southeast Alaska within a five-mile radius of one another. All the families live off the grid, on islands, and at least 15 or more miles from town requiring both boat and vehicle travel. Each family has over time developed its own water and energy collection systems. All the solar collection systems have the basic equipment but different site conditions and sun exposure. The families differ in the number and type of appliances, tools, customs, and needs.

What prompted our interest in solar energy was the hauling and paying for fuel oil or gasoline. Hauling fuel for a generator or stove requires that the containers be handled numerous times-to the boat, off the boat, into the truck, to town, back from town, back on boat, off the boat, and finally to the generator or oil storage tank.
In 1999 several of us began to design and install solar systems. Gas prices, at the time, were under $2.00 per gallon. Our calculations of system costs showed that we might break even by the end of the equipment life at the current gasoline prices. We also figured that gasoline would need to reach $2.80 a gallon to pay for the equipment in 10 years. However, how do you put into dollars the gallons of gasoline that we do not have to handle or haul in our boats or the time spent doing it? More recent calculations show a break-even point somewhere between 4 and 6 years.

None of us had any experience with solar electrical systems when the idea first took hold. We were like kids in a candy store-not knowing what equipment to buy or how to hook up the components. Since we live in the rain forest in Southeast Alaska, would there be enough sunlight to justify the expenditure? We researched equipment and costs and talked and talked. Enter about this time an engineering friend, Jerry Herbrandson who wanted to start his own renewable energy business, now Solar Wind. With his help the Cole’s and the Lynn’s bought and installed their first solar panels (4 Unisolar-64’s, Trace 24 volt inverters, and Trace C-40 charge controllers). By 2005, we had gained enough experience with our current systems to be comfortable in our knowledge, plus we had kept sufficient records over the years to know the average monthly total amp-hours we could expect, as well as our daily usage. Both families added 4 more panels to their arrays and at the same time looked at their power usage. We wrestled for a long time about how many solar panels we would need to add so that our collection and usage were equal (for six months of the year).
Potlucks are important in this large area with very few full-time residents to spread the current events. Not only is there wonderful food but it is a useful place to gain knowledge on all sorts of topics, such as solar energy. We must have discussed it enough, for the word got around.

Enter about this time a new family, the Howard’s, who were also interested in solar and hydro. After spending considerable time talking with us, they purchased a 48 volt Trace inverter with 12-125 watt panels, and a Trace C-40 charge controller.

Almost immediately after installing this system, the Howard’s began to look at hydro since they have a stream coming across their property. After measuring the flow and the elevation difference, they figured a hydro project to be feasible and applied for the permits through the State of Alaska. Temporary permit in hand, they put in a very simple system consisting of a dam and 500 feet of 6-inch pipe which goes to a small structure where they installed a stream engine hydro (Energy Systems Design) with the discharge going back into the stream. They put it into use and immediately began to get experience operating a hydro system. They consistently produce 250-500 watts per hour.

About this same time a fourth neighbor, the Williams’s decided that hauling fuel was getting old, and they began to ask questions of the rest of us too. Shortly thereafter, they purchased a 448 volt Trace inverter, 12-125 watt panels, and an Outback MX-60 charge controller. The MX-60 charge controller resulted from the Howard’s seeing an article about it in Solar Power Magazine, and then purchasing one.

The rest of us skeptics about its advantages waited to see it in operation and to compare it to the Trace C-40. Now, all of us have MX-60 charge controllers.

It’s interesting to compare the different ideas, equipment and the sites these systems are installed upon. The Lynn’s first array was designed to change the slope of the array from summer to winter. What we found was the differences in amp-hour collection here in Southeast Alaska are negligible since the sun is so low on the horizon. The Cole’s array was fixed in slope but could be hand turned during the day. The Lynn’s array could not. The location of the Cole’s caught the morning and early afternoon sun but not the late afternoon sun. However, turning the array made about a 25% difference in solar collection. The Lynn’s system begins working about 10 AM and collects till the sun goes below the horizon. The Howard’s start collecting early in the morning and continue till late afternoon when the sun goes behind the trees. The Williams’s collect from about 10 AM till the sun goes below the horizon. Since the arrays have different amounts of panels as well as different wattages for each panel, we have never really compared the amp-hours collected at the end of the day.

All of us agree that tracking the sun during the day does make a difference in the total amount of amp-hours collected. All of us take care of our total energy needs for 4-6 months a year with solar power. Although we were energy conscious before, installing these systems has made us pay closer attention to the power requirements of appliances, tools, and other equipment. We purchased a meter to measure appliance power usage that made the rounds and produced some interesting results.

It has been a good investment. The question now is how to take care of the rest of the months. With energy costs going even higher, the Cole’s are thinking about adding wind power. They have a wonderful site on which to install a tower. Since we have most of our winds in the winter time, a wind system would provide an offset when the sun is so low on the horizon. Our appetites for renewable energy knowledge have really been whetted, so we will continue to read, look at new ideas, talk and have potlucks.