solar farm

Jacob Mann/Frontiersman

Jenn Miller and Chris Colbert are not only married to each other, but also the idea of renewable energy, locally made.

WILLOW— There’s a new farm in Willow and the fruit it bears comes from the sky above. Soon, the Renewable Energy IPP team’s harvest will started yielding sunlight, coursing energy through their hand-made solar farm.

“It’s been cool to actually see it come together,” Jenn Miller, founding partner of Renewable Energy IPP said as her team was finishing some of the last touches.

Four partners, Miller, Sam Dennis, Chris Colbert, and Grant Smith formed Renewable Energy IPP to explore common interests, solar energy and good-old fashioned engineering and design. That team and an electrician were out working on the farm on Aug. 18 installing the electrical wires to the panels and MEA’s towers. They recently finished installing 408 heavy panels with heavy machinery and a lot of patience, creating one of the largest solar farms in the state.

“That was actually super rewarding because the foundation was just a real bear to complete,” Miller laughed.

Miller, Colbert and Dennis installed custom-built solar panels on their houses last summer as a “do it yourself project.” Miller and co. eventually asked each other: “how do we do more solar?”

“We starting kicking around a couple ideas and we were like, ‘well, you know, let’s just do one big system,’” Miller laughed.

This project is more of a passion of love and an intriguing puzzle to crack, according to Miller, with more to come down the road. She’s enjoyed overcoming the various road blocks and challenges, thriving from the mental sweat broke and real sweat accumulated after digging trenches and placing support beams in unexpected places like in the path of a natural stream on the lot.

“We’ve spent a lot of weekends out here!” She said.

There’s a meter poised to start rolling and keeping track of how much energy they can gather from the panels. Miller said there was about 10 percent of work left to do, with all of the most challenging aspects- like installing those panels- behind them. She said each stick of drill pipe weighs about 300 pounds.

“Sam and I were out here most days, dragging pipe around,” Colbert said.

The solar farm should be complete in couple weeks, according to Miller. She said that they plan on expanding after they get their 100-kilowatt hour solar system up and running. Once it’s fully operational, they will start selling electricity to Matanuska Electric Association. Miller said that MEA has been an avid supporter of their project since the beginning when it was just an idea.

“They met with us several times. We had this brainchild and we were like, ‘well, we’re thinking about buying 17 acres of land, what do you think?’ and talking through the whole project with us.”

After the meter starts running, the Renewable Energy IPP team will begin brainstorming their next steps, which will likely include expanding their overall operation on this 17-acre property.

“The cool thing is: when you put solar on your house, they do what’s called net metering, so whatever you pay the retail price- let’s say it’s 18 cents a kilowatt hour- that’s what you get from MEA but we’re actually doing what’s called a wholesale model. That’s where whatever it costs MEA to produce power, that’s what they pay us, so we get like eight and half to nine cents a kilowatt hour. That actually helps when we do bigger project we would do a negotiated rate and it could help suppress energy prices long term [for everyone].” Miller said.

We all use electricity while performing out everyday tasks like heating our homes or cooking with an electrical stove. Electricity is measured and charged by kilowatt hour (kWh). It’s quite similar to how gasoline is measured and charged by the gallon. One kWh is equal to the power consumption of one thousand watts for one hour. What does that mean? Well, for example, with one kilowatt hour, one could: brew 90 cups of coffee, surf the web for five hours, iron 11 shirts, blow dry your hair three times, or bake one birthday cake, according to data from the Ontario, Canada’s government website, related to their long term energy plan from 2013.

Miller said that the mission for this pilot project was essentially to their solar skills, evaluate the costs involved and determine if they can maintain the solar farm. She also mentioned that they also aim to establish relationships with local utility and suppliers as they weigh out the array of possibilities.

Miller’s personal unit at her home is one hundredth of the size of this expansive solar farm.

Naturally, a project of this scale required a lot of leg work and a lot of brainwork for this rag-tag group of what Miller described as “Engineers and desk jockeys by trade.”

Miller laughed and said it was more labor than she was used to.

Initially, Miller was a bit worried about what the surrounding neighbors might think about this gigantic, electrical endeavor, fearing they wouldn’t like it. To the contrary, she said that they were met with a warm welcome and surprising amount of support from the community. Colbert attested to that, saying that he was eager to be finished soon.

“It’s exciting, we’re on the home stretch now,” Colbert said.

The solar farm is located at Mile 64.7 on the Parks Highway. Anyone driving by simply can’t miss it since it’s right off the side of the road. For more information about the solar farm and Renewable Energy IPP, visit their website at: www.renewableIPP.com.

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