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A new frontier for solar power: Alaska

While the oil and gas industry is central to the Alaskan economy, an 8.5 MW solar project—the largest in the state—was recently completed in Alaska by Renewable IPP, and it involved some unique challenges.

By Paul MacDonald

Houston, Texas may be synonymous with the oil and gas industry, but there is another Houston in the U.S., and it has lately become known for renewable energy— in fact, it is now home to the largest solar power farm in Alaska.

This fall, CleanCapital, a diversified clean energy company, announced the addition of an 8.5 megawatt (MW) solar project in Houston, Alaska, to its operating portfolio, with a ceremony marking its interconnection to the local utility grid.

The Houston Solar Farm—the largest ever built in the state—was developed and built by Renewable Independent Power Producers (RIPP), an Alaska-based solar developer. As an investor focused on emerging developers, CleanCapital provided resources and funding to build the Houston Solar Farm, and is fostering future solar power opportunities for RIPP.

The Houston Solar Farm, located in south-central Alaska about 60 miles from Anchorage, was designed to minimize disturbances to the soil and vegetation. Its unique features include a focus on land preservation and an engineering approach to handle Alaska’s extreme weather conditions. Affordable Wire Management (AWM) implemented an above-ground wire strategy, with rugged metal cable hangers engineered
to withstand corrosive environments and intense ice and snow loads.

Local utility Matanuska Electric Association (MEA) is purchasing cost-competitive power from the project, which was also supported by a loan from the Alaska Energy Authority.

“Since its inception, CleanCapital has been driven by a mission to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy,” said Thomas Byrne, CEO of CleanCapital. “I cannot imagine a better illustration of the importance of that mission than bringing solar to an oil and gas-centric state where the impacts of climate change are so vividly felt.

“This project demonstrates the viability and economic rationale for adopting solar in Alaska,” added Byrne.

While oil and natural gas are central to Alaska’s economy and remain the state’s primary energy sources,
residents and state leaders alike are recognizing the need to diversify the state’s energy generation. Today, upwards of 80 percent of south-central Alaska’s power and most of its heat is generated using a single source: Cook Inlet natural gas.

The natural gas producers in Cook Inlet, which stretches 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage, have cautioned about depleting resources. Importing natural gas in the form of LNG would further increase the region’s high energy costs.

CleanCapital pioneered the historic Houston solar power project, working with RIPP to engage utility MEA as the off-taker. CleanCapital’s climate finance expertise—honed from years in renewables—was critical to ensuring Houston was economically feasible, says the company.


Renewable Independent Power Producers are looking to expedite their project pipeline, and do further projects in Alaska, now that they have a financing partner in CleanCapital.


Until now, Alaska had not built solar projects at the scale needed to help the state meet its diversification and energy supply needs. The Houston Solar Farm will help lead the way to a new energy mix within the state while providing lower-cost energy to the local community of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

“The cohesive partnerships for-med among RIPP, CleanCapital, the Alaska Energy Authority and MEA were key in the completion of the historic solar project,” said Jenn Miller, CEO of RIPP. “We took special care and consideration when constructing this project to take full advantage of the unique location and combat the typical challenges of bringing renewables to Alaska.”

“This project is the largest of its kind in the state and we aim to continue developing cost competitive renewable energy projects to shore up Alaska’s energy supply and suppress energy prices for residents and local businesses,” she continued.

RIPP, founded in 2017 by Jenn Miller and Chris Colbert, develops and constructs solar projects in Alaska. RIPP has played a pivotal role in shaping Alaska’s clean energy landscape. The company’s flagship project, the 1.2 MW Willow Solar Farm, made history as the largest solar array in the state when it was built in 2019. The 8.5 MW Houston Solar Farm, completed this past August, is now delivering renewable power to over 1,400 homes.

By delivering both projects under budget and below Lower-48 benchmarks, RIPP says it has proven that solar is economic in northern latitudes. Looking ahead, the partnership between CleanCapital and RIPP will expedite their combined solar project pipeline, and will help to decarbonize Alaska, say the companies.

Houston Solar Farm, which is quite close to the company’s previous Willow project, ties into MEA’s grid, and the power is sold to the utility at wholesale prices. They are able to deliver solar power at prices 10 to 20 percent lower than the current prices MEA is paying for power, which is generated by the Cook Inlet natural gas.

Interestingly, Miller and her partners all came from the oil and gas industry.

“We saw a unique opportunity— with solar power becoming more economic and solar component prices coming down—to provide cost competitive energy for Alaskans,”  she says.

Illustrating the faith they had, and how much they wanted to get solar power off the ground in Alaska, RIPP initially did a 140 kW pilot project in 2018, which was self-designed, self-funded and self-built. It was the first commercial solar power project in Alaska.


Until recently, Alaska had not built solar projects at the scale needed to help the state meet its diversification and energy supply needs. But recent solar farms are helping lead the way to a new energy mix within the state, while providing lower-cost energy to the local communities.


RIPP selected the site for the Houston Solar Farm in 2019, and started the development process. Miller praised CleanCapital for joining RIPP as a capital-providing partner. “CleanCapital was a very key project partner as we worked to do all the due diligence and pricing for the project. They stayed with us through the ups and downs of project development.”

Miller and RIPP’s CFO Chris Colbert note that building a solar project in Alaska poses some interesting challenges vs. building a solar project in the Lower 48. Many solar projects the size of Houston are built on a regular basis in the Lower 48, and, as a result there are trained workforces available for construction.

“We focus on hiring local, to make sure the local community feels part of the project,” explains Colbert. “Generally, we hire people who have construction experience, but they have never built a solar farm.” 

There was a small carryover of construction workers from their previous projects, but 90 percent-plus of the workers on the Houston project were new to building solar power sites.

“We’re hoping that as we mature, our development pipeline will have enough projects so that we’ll consistently be in construction phases. That would help us carry a trained construction workforce forward more easily,” he said.

Site prep was fairly minimal. The site was part of the Miller’s Reach Fire burn area, a fire that went through the area in the late-1990s. RIPP used a skid steer-mounted mulcher to handle some vegetation on the site, and did some grading.

“Ninety percent of the site is natural vegetation and undisturbed,” said Colbert. “We wanted to demonstrate that solar can be built and you can maintain the natural state of the land—that the two can co-exist.”

A challenge that RIPP shared with its solar project builders to the south was weather: they saw a lot of it, and had only a short construction window.

“From when we started building the project to completing it, we had some of the worst weather on record in south-central Alaska,” he said. “We drove all 6,200 piles in the fall of 2022 and did some site prep, and it was the rainiest late summer/early fall on record. But we had great crews and that made this work.


Jenn Miller, (center right, in yellow sweater) of Renewable Independent Power Producers (RIPP) which developed and built the Houston, Alaska, solar project, at the official opening of the project. RIPP develops and constructs solar projects in Alaska, and has played a pivotal role in shaping Alaska’s clean energy landscape. Key partners on the Houston solar project were APA Solar Racking and Affordable
Wire Management.


“We were relieved to get over that, but then winter came. By December, we had six feet of snow on the ground,” continued Colbert.

By March, when above-ground construction was getting underway, they had a base level of about four feet of snow on the site, and some parts of the site had six to eight feet.

“We thought the snow would start melting, but that did not happen. We had a late spring, so we had to snow blow the access roads, snowplow down the rows on the site and in between the piles. to create a work area.”

Colbert remarked, “If you have the right equipment, you can reasonably handle adverse conditions. We had very dedicated crews that worked through all of that snow and cold.” They are, as Colbert put it, Alaskans, so they know what to expect—and to sometimes expect the unexpected.

All of this being said, the components used to build solar power projects in Alaska, in fact, may not have to be robust as some used in weather prone areas in the Lower 48. Alaska’s snow loads and temperatures are extreme, but may not be as adverse as some areas of the northern plains or northeastern U.S.

“There is this perception that it is really extreme here in Alaska—but from a design standpoint, it’s not nearly as harsh as people might think,” says Miller. (see wind/temperature sidebar story).

Colbert said that RIPP looks to work with more mainstream solar power components. “We try to control costs by using more off-the-shelf kinds of solutions, so for the panels, inverters, transformers, we look to components that are already designed to meet our temperature and operating ranges, and even seismic and snow loads.”

RIPP used Risen bi-facial panels, APA Solar Racking and SMA string inverters on the Houston Solar Farm.

“The bi-facial panels are a benefit in Alaska because in the spring we get a lot of reflected light off the snow, and even in the fall, we’re getting a production boost from the bi-facial panels. And the string inverters are key for us because it allows us to do maintenance ourselves in a timely way,” Colbert noted. While CleanCapital owns the project, RIPP has the Operations and Maintenance contract.


Photo by Robby Schachle


Another key partner in building Houston was Affordable Wire Management (AWM), as they worked closely with RIPP to develop a customized above ground wire strategy. “We wanted to maintain full access to remove snow in the winter with snowblowers, so we went overhead with all of our AC and DC lines,” explains Colbert. So, the challenge was to go 14 feet in the air with the wiring that met all their requirements. “AWM was able to provide a good solution for us and working with them was an excellent experience.”

Scott Rand, CEO of AWM, says the company had been involved in a number of northern U.S. and Canadian projects in the past—and that they were very interested in participating in the Alaska project. “When we heard we had the opportunity to support the largest solar power project in Alaska, we were really excited about it,” Rand said.

“Our company’s main mission is to provide innovative wire management solutions that accelerate the adoption of solar power,” he explained. And that includes working with projects in northern climates, to move solar power forward. He notes that the company has done work in several northern U.S. states—Washington, Oregon and Montana, the last of which has the second coldest temperatures record in the U.S. (see sidebar story).

With the Houston solar project, AWM, as it always does with a project, evaluated the loads that were required, then worked with RIPP to determine what type of system would work best. “All of our systems are engineered for a particular project,” Rand explained.

AWM is able to bring extensive expertise to projects, he says. “We have talented engineering professionals on our staff, with years of experience in utility-scale solar. Wire management is the intersection of several different engineering disciplines—civil, mechanical, electrical—so you need well-rounded engineering talent, and our team brings that to every project we work on.

“I think that is one of the reasons why we have been successful in these northern climates,” Rand added.

With the Houston project, AWM’s Arden Messenger Cable Hangers were selected as the wire management solution of choice. “We partnered with RIPP, and engineered a system that worked for them.”

Arden Hangers leverage state-of-the art cable geometry to provide significant ampacity benefits. The weight capacity is among several features that allow EPCs and developers to reduce costs during construction, while AWM’s unique approach to cable geometry increases the total power that can safely be transmitted through the cables, says the company.

Rand said that AWM collaborated with RIPP early in the process, which was helpful, and design changes were incorporated as development and construction of the project moved ahead. Rand remarked, “Flexibility, an innovative approach and being willing to flexibly incorporate changes are important attributes of a good component partner, such as AWM. Our Arden Hangers were the right solution, as we customized them to meet project needs.

“Every company and every engineering team tries to make sure that 100 percent of a project is specified and designed, but in the course of construction typically there are some adjustments that have to be made,” he added.

Those adjustments further ensure the design solution is, as much as possible, the best possible fit for the project.

Rand says AWM was very pleased to be involved with such an important project for the industry, and for solar power in Alaska. “RIPP is an inspiration to the industry, for having the vision to develop solar power in Alaska. We think they are doing great things. We were honored to be involved from the beginning to support this project.”

As for RIPP, they are looking to expedite their project pipeline now that they have a financing partner in CleanCapital. The Houston project has spurred the interest of other Alaska utilities, and they have a solid business model.

Miller noted that the great co-operation and collaboration with utility, Matanuska Electric Association, and local residents getting on board with the project all helped to move it ahead. “So many stakeholders came together to make the project happen,” she concluded. 

Q4 2023