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UAF solar project derailed by regents

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Posted: Thursday, June 13, 2013 12:08 am | Updated: 12:09 am, Thu Jun 13, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — A proposal to install a large array of solar panels on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus didn’t win enough support from the Alaska Board of Regents last week to proceed.

Regents backed the project by a 5-3 margin at their meeting in Fairbanks, but it required six votes from the 11-member board to pass. Regents Gloria O’Neill and Tim Brady were absent, along with newly appointed student regent Courtney Enright.

Siemens Industry Inc. approached UAF with the proposal for the $4.1 million project, which would generate enough electricity for about 5 percent of the annual campus electricity needs. The company hoped to build the 1 megawatt array on the hills below the Butrovich Building starting in spring 2014.

UAF planned to pay as much as $105,000 for design work, with maintenance and other capital costs funded by Siemens. To recover that investment, the company planned to sell electricity back to UAF.

UAF officials estimated the project would provide electricity for about 19 cents per kilowatt hour, slightly less than the roughly 22 cents per hour the campus has recently paid for electricity from Golden Valley Electric Association.

The negotiation of an electric rate that would be lower than future purchased power costs would be required to finish the agreement, according to UAF.

A summary of the project prepared for regents by the UAF administration touted it as a way to help wean the campus off GVEA’s power supply. It also aligns with a goal of adding more renewable energy as UAF seeks funding for a new coal-fired power plant on campus.

The summary acknowledged there likely would be some opposition to the appearance of a large solar array on UAF’s West Ridge, but argued that it the project would be a positive addition to campus.

“Counter to the possible negative reaction to the changed ‘viewscape’ aesthetics are the public benefits of a sustainable energy project being erected on campus concurrent with planning for a replacement solid fuel (power) plant,” the summary stated.

Regent Kirk Wickersham, one of three regents to oppose the project, said some aspects of the project need more study before he’s convinced. Dale Anderson and Kenneth Fisher also voted against the project.

Wickersham said he had concerns about the appearance of the array, including the potential for glare and a fence that would be built around it. He also would like to see power-cost agreement that would clearly define power costs ahead of the vote.

“If there’s going to be this negative impact on the campus and surrounding area, there needs to be an offsetting benefit,” Wickersham said.

Pat Jacobson, the chairwoman of the UA Board of Regents, said the issue could still be revived. The regents who opposed the array seemed amenable to looking at the project again if more information is made available, she said.

Jacobson said Siemens and UAF plan to meet soon to discuss how to proceed.

“I don’t know when it might come back, but it could,” she said.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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