Renewable Energy in the Arctic Circle

Story and photo by Michael Rovito

Wind turbines at sunrise in Qikiqtagruk.

On a clear day, if you take off from Kotzebue (Qikiqtagruk), Alaska, and head south over the rolling tundra, you will spot rows of solar panels amid more than a dozen wind turbines standing sentinel above the treeless landscape.

The turbines and panels are part of a decades-long effort by Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA) to lower its reliance on diesel fuel for electric generation.

Kotzebue is 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle and occupies the northern corner of the Baldwin Peninsula. The strip of land the town calls home is nestled between Kotzebue Sound to the west and Hotham Lake—or Kobuk Lake, to the locals—to the east.

A hub for the numerous outlying villages in the Northwest Arctic region, Kotzebue’s airport bustles with activity each day as passengers transfer through, some heading home and others heading to Anchorage and points beyond.

On a recent blustery day in November, crews were out in the windswept area of the solar farm, preparing for its growth as the co-op’s wind turbines—many erected in the mid-1990s—have come to the end of their useful life.

“We’re taking the infrastructure from the wind turbines that no longer work and replacing them with solar,” says Martin Shroyer, Kotzebue Electric Association’s general manager.

The co-op just ordered 981 solar panels, which will add to the 1,140 already in place on the tundra. The new panels will provide 632 kilowatts for the community in addition to the 532 kilowatts (kW) the existing panels generate. The new panels are expected to replace about 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year—about the same amount as the existing panels, according to Matt Bergan, KEA’s project engineer.

Electric utilities nationwide are seeing a rapid transition in how electricity is generated. Generating power from sources other than fossil fuels not only cuts carbon emissions, it diversifies an electric utility’s generation portfolio so it is not reliant on only one type of fuel and the volatility that comes with it. But the transition must be done with care, so consumers still have reliable power to run myriad items that require electricity in the modern age. Reliability is still king.

Many parts of Alaska have seen increased generation diversity through the years. Cooperatives across the state have made significant investments in wind, solar and hydropower.

As technology advances and prices come down, clean electricity is becoming more feasible for electric utilities in the Last Frontier. But what about solar in the Arctic? Well, it really does work.

Martin says the co-op can usually generate power from the sun from late February to October. This is accomplished by using bifacial solar panels that can generate power from both sides.

When the sun is above the horizon in winter, its rays bounce off the snow and hit the panels from below. In the summer, the sun never really sets, providing plenty of light for the solar farm.

KEA still needs its diesel generators to make the power it cannot get from wind and solar. But the co-op has come close to a diesel-off scenario.

Martin says one day earlier this year, Kotzebue generated power from 95% renewable sources. Matt told the Arctic Sounder newspaper in April that in the last couple of days, the wind and solar farms had been generating about 75% of the community’s electricity needs.

After a brief project shutdown in November due to a strong blizzard that hit Kotzebue, the crew from Alaska Native Renewable Industries— the Huslia-based company constructing the solar farm—was back in the field. Working diligently before the depths of winter hit, workers placed markers and constructed racks where future solar panels will hang.

As Martin drove cautiously down a snowdrift-covered road, a vision of the future spread out across the wind-scoured tundra. In a place so remote, with conditions so extreme, KEA is taking part in the energy transition.