Solar powering the Arctic

By Michel Carreau | November 14, 2019

The installation of global solar power is growing at an accelerated rate, driven by its increasingly competitive cost combined with the transition to low-carbon energy sources. While attention has been focused on rooftop and utility installations, the high cost of transporting fuel to remote locations presents one of the strongest business cases for integrating renewable energy with diesel power generation to form a hybrid power generation system.

There are significant challenges to the installation of solar panels in the Arctic, including extreme low temperatures, limited sunlight during winter months, and significant snowfall. However, there is a way to make solar power a cost-effective solution for remote communities and mines in these regions. While the Arctic sun is present for only a short period of time during the winter months, the summer offers periods of up to 24 consecutive hours of sunshine for several weeks on end, with significant sunshine available during the spring and early fall months too.

Two examples of remote locations that have taken advantage of this cost-effective solution are the settlement of Colville Lake, Northwest Territories, and the Nunavik Research Centre building in Kuujjuaq, Quebec; they have installed 136 kWAC and 50 kWAC of solar power respectively.

Larger scale installations continue to be investigated and initial results indicate a potential levelized cost of energy (including installation, transportation, and commissioning cost) of 20 cents/kWh over a 20-year lifetime. This is significantly less expensive than diesel power production, which can vary from 23 cents/kWh for larger mining sites and up to 65 cents/kWh for remote communities.

Modular is might

The modular nature of solar panels and their related equipment provides an opportunity for lower-risk phased development and lower project costs. All the equipment required for the project can be delivered to the remote site in standard shipping containers via existing transportation routes. In this way, a scaled-up version of the solar project mainly involves shipping more containers to site. Not so with wind power, which is considerably more difficult to ship.

Aside from the simpler shipping and assembly, solar power is significantly easier to get through permitting than wind power, and it has greater social acceptability. The evaluation of the solar resource is also much more straightforward as it does not require an expensive and time-consuming monitoring campaign to determine its feasibility.

Solar tracking to maximize energy production

Unlike in regions closer to the equator, where the sun passes overhead, the sun follows the horizon at the higher latitudes of the Arctic, tracing something closer to a circle than an arc. This path makes it challenging for fixed panel systems to capture the abundant solar production during summer months.

Solar trackers–either single-axis or dual-axis–orient the panels to the sun, and maximize the amount of solar power produced as the sun moves across the sky. Single-axis tracking can adjust the panels to laterally track the sun across the horizon, or to follow the changes in solar height throughout the seasons, while dual-axis tracking can manage both variations. Using these systems, the capacity factor of solar power (the average power production as a percentage of the total installed capacity) can reach 19 percent with single-axis tracking and 21 percent with dual-axis tracking, compared to 14 percent for fixed-axis solar panels.

In fact, the successful installation and testing performed by Cambridge Energy Partners and Solvest in Whitehorse, Yukon, demonstrated that the efficiency of solar panels actually increased at lower temperatures.

Two sides are better than one

Bifacial modules, recently launched as a commercial product, allow solar irradiation to be captured on both sides of a panel, which is of particular interest in the Arctic, where the solar rays can be deflected by the ground and snow. Compared to a monofacial solar panel, bifacial solar energy production can add to the capacity factor by up to three percent (a 23 percent increase in energy). Moreover, the absorption of solar irradiation on the rear of the panel produces heat that can melt the snow off the panel face more rapidly than on a monofacial panel, further increasing the solar power production.

As the performance of solar panels increases over time, the already reasonable capacity factor will similarly improve. At the same time, equipment prices are expected to continue to go down. As a result, the business case for solar power will only get better with time.

The future of Arctic solar is bright

The adoption of this energy resource in remote locations will continue to grow as solar power gains recognition as a pragmatic and low-impact solution to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to lower energy costs in remote locations. With proven project success and sound technological readiness, solar power in the Arctic is here to stay.

This article originally appeared in CIM Magazine, published by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum.