Sharing solar power: Chugach Electric's community project offers outlet to reap energy benefits with less investment

Want to invest in solar electricity but don’t have the cash to install a rooftop solar panel and the components needed to make it work in your home?

Chugach Electric Association might have a solution. The electrical cooperative plans to sell 500 shares in a community solar project that will generate an average of 600 megawatt hours of energy, or 600 MWh, per year. If approved, it would be the largest commercial solar installation and the first community solar project built in Alaska.

“It lowers the barriers of entry for people. They don’t have to go out and find a good contractor — and some people don’t have a good southfacing roof for solar,” said Chris Pike, a research assistant with the University of Alaska Fairbanks-based Alaska Center for Energy and Power, and a supporter of the solar project.

“I think it’s a great project, and I’m excited that large solar is gaining a foothold in the state,” he said.

The project got traction after an August member survey, in which Chugach members were asked about a variety of topics, including sustainability and their interest in investing in a solar project, said Sean Skaling, the Community Solar project manager for Chugach Electric.

More than 60 percent of members were interested in investing in solar energy projects, Skaling said. Many said they were willing to pay around $10 more on their monthly electric bill to pay for it. And, if everything pencils out right and the sun cooperates, Skaling said that’s about what the cost per share to participate in the solar project would work out to.

Here’s what has to happen first: Chugach plans to bring the proposal to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which regulates utilities, and get approval. Once filed, the RCA has 45 days to respond to Chugach’s request or to ask for more information.

If the regulatory agency approves the project, Chugach can start selling the 500 shares available for the project. Pending RCA approval, that could happen this month, Skaling said.

Participation in the program is optional. Chugach members can choose from paying upfront for shares or subscribing in monthly installments. The cost per share is not yet known but is expected to be approximately $5,000 for upfront payment, or $28 for the monthly subscription. Members committing to upfront payments early will pay less, perhaps closer to $4,300 per share. Each share is expected to yield an average of about 1,200 kWh per year, mostly in summer and shoulder season months. The total project cost will be under $2 million, he said, and it has an expected life of 25 years.

“We are seeking 80 percent enrollment, or shares sold, before starting construction,” he said. “I think it’s going to sell pretty quickly, based on the demand we’ve heard.”

Then Chugach will select a contractor to build the project from a list of five contractors who responded to a December 2017 design-build solicitation. Once a contractor is selected, Skaling estimated it would take a couple months for materials to arrive in Alaska and another month for construction. If everything goes as planned, the solar panels could be in place and generating energy in time to take advantage of late-summer days.

Once the panels are up, members who have purchased shares will start seeing a benefit. If a household generally uses 600 kilowatt hours in a month and the homeowners purchase one share that produces 100 kWh, the homeowners will be billed for the net 500 kWh.

Buying one share should work out to an average extra cost of about $10 per month, he said. In the winter, shareholders might not get much return for their $28, but in the summer months they might receive $32 worth of benefit.

“You really experience it,” Skaling

said. “Solar isn’t there all the time, but it’s a great way to offset fossil fuel generation. But you still need the grid to maintain the energy during those darker and colder months.” The trick, Skaling said, will be helping homeowners purchase the right number of shares. If a home is using 600 kWh per month, buying two shares will mean enough solar power will likely be produced in the summer to completely offset all electrical demands those months. Buy three shares, and the solar panels will likely produce more than the power needed in mid-summer months. That sounds like a good thing, but Skaling said any excess monthly generation is credited back at a lower value.

“To get the best economic value, you want to buy a number of shares that will not exceed your own personal household use in any given month,” he explained. For the average household that would mean buying one or two shares, three for larger energy users.

Judging by the amount of interest from the community, the 500-share project might sell out fast.

Pike with the Alaska Center for Energy and Power said Alaskans might see more solar projects in the near future, as the price-per-kilovolt for solar panels continues to drop.

“It’s kind of entered that sweet spot,” he said. “Some of the installers around town were busy last summer and are guessing they’re going to be at least as busy this year. It’s a good time for solar in this state.”

Chugach Electric Association board member Sisi Cooper said the community solar project is a great demonstration of the board’s commitment to what it calls a “triple bottom line.” TBL, as it’s sometimes called, is a way of evaluating a business’s performance based on economic, social and environmental measures.

The board adopted the TBL philosophy last year, prior to the community solar project coming together. She said this project meets economic demands, addresses the concerns and desires of Chugach members, and helps diversify the cooperative’s energy portfolio.

Cooper said she’s spoken to several Chugach members who are interested in supporting renewable energy projects but for whom installing a project themselves is too daunting — their time is directed in getting children to school or after-school activities, she said. Or maybe they live in an apartment and don’t have a way to install solar panels.

“They shouldn’t have to think about it or look at doing their own installation. That’s what we’re here for; we want to be part of a solution, if that’s how you want to live,” Cooper said.

If it works, she said, it might be a model for other projects around Chugach’s service area.

“With the success of a project like this, we could look at repeating it at another location in town or scaling it for a different location,” she said.

Chugach Electric Association members interested in signing up to receive updates about the Community Solar project are welcome to visit:

Rini White is the editor of The Alaska Contractor