Developers set to flip switch at Alaska’s largest solar farm

An increasing number of residential solar installations are also boosting supply in Matanuska Electric Association’s service area, and across Southcentral as well.

HOUSTON — The largest solar farm in Alaska will soon begin harvesting power from the sun, helping suppress electricity costs in the fastest-growing region of the state.

The new Houston Solar Farm, stretched across a brushy lot that in 1996 was scorched by the costly Miller’s Reach fire, will provide enough energy to power about 1,400 homes when it’s turned on, developers say.

It will nearly double the solar energy generated in Alaska, they say.

But the 8.5-megawatt project, located near Houston High School, is just part of the solar power picture in Southcentral Alaska, where solar panels are increasingly sprouting on rooftops amid gloomy forecasts that the region’s longtime power source, Cook Inlet natural gas, will dwindle starting in 2027.

When electricity starts flowing from the solar farm, some time in the coming weeks, the Matanuska Electric Association will buy it for slightly less than the cost of Cook Inlet gas, said Jenn Miller, chief executive of Renewable IPP, the project developer.

That means the solar farm will likely generate significant and growing savings into the future for the utility, especially if costly natural gas needs to be imported from Outside as expected, observers say.

Miller said the solar farm will produce eight times the electricity as the company produces at its nearby Willow solar project, built four years ago and previously the largest solar farm in Alaska.

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The Houston farm won’t be the last solar project for the company. It’s already planning to build an even larger solar farm on the Kenai Peninsula.

“This is a first step of many here in the state,” Miller said, speaking at a ribbon-cutting for the Houston solar farm on Tuesday, held under a drizzling sky.

Replacing natural gas

The sweeping rows of panels at the Houston farm cover an area the size of 34 football fields, Miller said. And there’s space for more panels to be added in the future, she said.

The panels are more efficient than those at the farm in Willow, she said. They’re bifacial, so they’ll absorb sunlight from above and from snow below.

She said 30 workers, along with subcontractors, built the project over the past year. Planning took a few years.

“I think we think of solar and renewables as the light, fluffy version of energy generation,” she told about 100 people on Tuesday. “I’m here to tell you there’s nothing light or fluffy about it. We’ve got over 200,000 pounds of steel, 14,400 solar panels, over 40 miles of wires, and over hundreds of thousands of nuts and bolts.”

Tony Izzo, chief executive of the Matanuska Electric Association, said studies show that Alaska utilities will need to import gas in the coming years, though he said they should be as limited as possible.

He said the solar project’s output will be half the energy produced at one of the 10 gas-fired generators at the utility’s power plant in Eklutna.

That can help stabilize rates as costs rise, he said. And it will help lower the utility’s $45 million annual gas bill, by about $100,000.

Along with hydropower and other projects the utility is weighing, the Houston solar farm can help Matanuska Electric move closer to its goal of using 50% clean energy by 2050, he said.

The utility got 16% of its power from clean energy last year, thanks largely to the Bradley Lake and Eklutna hydropower facilities, said Julie Estey, the utility’s spokeswoman.

The solar farm will help the utility move closer to 17%.


“You combine that with other things we’re doing and slowly you can take those offline, or cycle them differently to burn less,” Izzo said, referring to gas-fueled generators.

Residential solar installations are also helping make a small difference in the utility’s service area and across Southcentral, though they collectively produce a little less power than the Houston Solar Farm.

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Those residential customers, who can sell their excess solar power to Matanuska Electric, grew by 33% last year, to more than 400 ratepayers, utility reports show. In the Anchorage area, their numbers grew by 18%, with more than 775 ratepayers now generating their own solar power, Chugach Electric Association reported.

‘Making more than we use’

Concerns about rising natural gas prices and dwindling supply is part of the reason that Mike Chmielewski and his wife, Lee Henrikson, recently expanded the number of solar panels atop their house in downtown Palmer.

The retired educators want to make as much of their own electricity as possible, Chmielewski said.


Their 15 panels meet their summer power needs, including for their Kia Niro electric car.

“That means I’m driving for free,” he said.

They also sell excess power to the utility for credits in Alaska’s sun-starved winter. They’ve cut their annual bill roughly in half, to less than $600, he said. After the new installation costs are paid for, he estimates in about seven years, the system will generate free power for decades, he said.

“The payback is better than you can get on most other investments,” he said.

Stephen Trimble, who co-owns Arctic Solar Ventures in Anchorage, said forecasts for a Cook Inlet gas shortage are encouraging more Alaskans to sign up for solar installations.

“People are like, ‘Oh gosh, I should be thinking about where my energy is coming from, and how can I control the cost of that,’ ” he said.


Federal tax credits that start at 30% for solar projects are also helping drive sales, he said.

Many people are opting for larger installations than they once did, and projects are typically paid off in about 10 years, so they generate profits for the homeowners for two decades or more, he said.

After a dip during the pandemic, sales for his company are up sharply in Anchorage and in the more politically conservative Mat-Su area, he said.

“Being in a resource development state, we focus on the economic benefits,” he said of the projects. “It’s a good financial choice, and the other benefits you’ll get whether you like it or not,” such as environmental benefits, he said.

Louisa Branchflower, who lives near downtown Palmer and works at a local nonprofit, said she and her family of five — if you count an exchange student from Belgium — began generating power from 20 panels atop their house this summer.

They wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, she said.

She joined up with other households in the area to slightly lower project costs under the Solarize program led by the Alaska Center. The program facilitates group installations by multiple households, lowering prices.

The only downside was a delay in getting the panels shipped to Alaska, perhaps because of the demand, Branchflower said.


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On Tuesday, even under thick clouds, the system produced more power than the family needed, allowing some to be sold to the utility, she said.

“It’s great that we’re making more than we use,” she said.

Lots of solar opportunity in Alaska

Miller said there’s room for solar power to grow in Alaska. She has pointed to Germany as an example. It gets a similar amount of sunlight to Alaska, but more than 10% of its power comes from solar energy.

Miller declined to disclose the location of the company’s next project on the Kenai Peninsula. But she said plans call for a solar farm with about four times the power output of the new Houston project.

Estimates show it will meet more than 10% of electricity demand in the service area of the Homer Electric Association, she said.

“So it will be a significant contribution,” she said.

As for the Houston project, Miller declined to disclose the cost.

She said numerous partners helped make it happen. Financing came from CleanCapital, a New York-based firm that has acquired more than 200 solar projects across the U.S., and will own the Houston solar farm. The Alaska Energy Authority, a state agency, also provided a $5 million loan.

Miller said the Houston project can further prove up the benefits of solar power in Alaska, leading to new solar farms that, along with wind power and other clean energy, can help address the looming Cook Inlet gas shortage.

“It opens the doors for more projects to be done and builds that momentum to address our energy supply issue,” she said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or