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Harnessing Sunlight in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska

Kylie Gordon
Oct 12 2020
 

With support from the Lane Center, Stanford students install solar energy panels on Alaska's Inian Islands, a little-known rural western community.

student installs solar panels on roof of building

In the summer of 2019, Vanessa Farley, '22, traveled to Hawaii for a Sophomore College course on clean energy technology, sponsored by the Bill Lane Center for the American West. At the Clearway Kawailoa Solar Farm on the north shore of Oahu, Farley and her peers toured the power plant's solar panels, which are bringing Hawaii closer to its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045.
 
From her SoCo experience, Farley knew that the Bill Lane Center prioritized programs and research on environmental sustainability in the American West. So when she and Stanford peer, Cam Twarog, '22, proposed another summer project that would help bring energy stability to a small, off-grid corner of Alaska, it was not surprising that the Lane Center agreed to support the undergraduates' work. After all, the students' focus on natural resource preservation in the Alaskan wilderness was aligned not only with the Lane Center's committment to sustainable energy solutions, but also with the Center's goal of building thriving rural western communities
 

map of Alaska's Inian Islands

Southeast Alaska, with Glacier Bay National Park in white, Tongass National Forest in green, and Cross Sound
– the location of the Inian Islands — shown by a star. Map courtesy of the Inian Islands Institute

Though perhaps rural Alaska does not immediately jump to mind when contemplating the American Western region, the Center's vision for the West does include the 49th state outward to the Pacific world, where Farley and Twarog were quarantining together during July of 2020. Farley was born and raised in Alaska, and Twarog, in rural New Hampshire.  The two shared an interest in ecology and sustainable living, which led them to spend part of their summer with the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program (WWOOF) in Southeast Alaska. Through WWOOF, and by word of mouth, the pair heard about the nearby Inian Islands Institute, an ecological field school founded by four Stanford PhD students on unceded Huna Tlingit land. Knowing they might have something to offer the Institute, which provides experiential study in environmental science and sustainability, Farley and Twarog reached out to the organization's director, Zach Brown, who offered them an opportunity to work on a solar panel project in need of completion. 
 
As a product design and electrical engineering major, respectively, Farley and Twarog felt they could draw on some of the technical expertise they'd already honed and pair their sustainable farming work with this new, sustainable energy project. The students both had first-hand experience living in a rural setting, so they felt eager and equipped to tackle the unique set of challenges faced by Alaska's Inian Islands, which lacked the resources and energy infrastructure enjoyed by more urban areas. The students also wanted to continue serving the local community, working with their hands and learning skills they wouldn’t necessarily acquire in a Stanford classroom. So together, they agreed to embark on the solar installation.
 

While the Inian Islands Institute relied on hydroelectric power, its small hydro-generator was entirely dependent on rain; supplementing with solar energy would ensure consistent operation on sunny days too. Farley had learned the fundamentals of solar power during the Lane Center Sophomore College class in Hawaii. Twarog had an electrical engineering background and had taken some circuits classes at Stanford, but neither student had designed or installed solar panels before. The enterprising students were tirelessly up to the task, however, and they succeeded in their installation of a one-kilowatt solar array, helping the Institute achieve their fossil-free mission while gaining valuable, hands-on experience in clean energy.

We asked Farley and Twarog to share more about their experience in Southeast Alaska. Below are some of their thoughts on the inspiration behind their project, their interests in renewable resources, and their desire to learn alongside and within a self-sufficient, sustainable community in the rural West.

Q & A with Vanessa Farley, Product Design '22, and Cam Twarog, Electrical Engineering, '22

What was the basis for your interest in an isolated, off-the-grid Alaskan community? Are you both from there, or did you go specifically for this project?

Farley and Twarog: We would like to acknowledge that the Inian Islands and the surrounding lands and waters are not our own, nor do they belong to the Institute. The Huna Tlingit people lived and thrived on these lands and waters for thousands of years before they were stolen and occupied by European colonizers.

student installing solar panels on a roof

Twarog:  I grew up in rural New Hampshire and after school I want to live and work in rural New England, so working in an isolated community is aligned with later goals for me. I also grew up in a family that was actively involved in clean energy advocacy, so I’ve always been surrounded by topics relating to energy. I’m particularly interested in the use of solar and other renewables for clean power generation in rural or off-grid communities. Once we found out that the Inian Islands Institute had solar panels that they needed to be installed, I was immediately excited at the opportunity to live and work in such a place where even simple tasks take much more resourcefulness and creativity than in urban settings. Vanessa and I were alread living in Alaska working with WWOOF, so this solar project was a relatively local way to combine electrical engineering and general construction skills.

Vanessa and I were also interested in learning skills beyond installing solar panels, and the Inian Islands Institute has an incredible caretaker, Colter Barnes, who is so willing to share his knowledge about fishing, tanning hides, construction, crabbing, etc. We got to help on so many different projects that were unrelated to solar, but helped us to learn new skills beyond solar panel installation. In addition to this, all of the meat that we ate was either crab, venison, or fish that was fished and hunted around the island. All of the vegetables were grown on the island. We ended up having a really intimate relationship with the land that we were living on that neither of us expected, but were happy to welcome. There is also an environmental science significance to this island, as it is located in an area of water that is home to dense populations of whales, sea lions, sea otters, salmon, halibut, etc. On short kayak outings, we would paddle next to pods of sea lions and watch humpback whales breach from afar.

 

student with solar panel on back

Farley:  I was born and raised in Southcentral Alaska. From my time spent living and working in rural communities throughout the state, I understand first-hand how many rural communities often lack access to the same resources and energy infrastructure that more populated areas enjoy. I felt strongly that I wanted to contribute my time working to heal this divide between rural and urban Alaska, and the Inian Islands Institute offered the perfect opportunity for me to use my mechanical engineering education to benefit the Alaskan communities I care about.
 
Can you describe the physical installation process? How did you actually install these solar panels on the roof of the Inian Inslands Institute?
 
Farley and Twarog: The main goal of our solar project was to supplement the hydro-generator’s power production for summer months when the days are longer and it is generally less cloudy than in the winter. First we contacted Zach Brown, the Institute's director, to begin our planning process. Then we spoke to the island's caretaker, and the engineer who designed the island’s current electrical system.
 
Inian Islands was gifted solar panels that can generate 900 watts of electricity for the island, and we mounted, installed, and wired the panels so that they were integrated into the island's small electrical grid. As we started working on mounting the panels, we quickly came to accept that any work done in Bush Alaska is much more complicated and convoluted than work done in an urban (or even rural, but on-grid) setting.  The problem of getting the panels on the roof proved to be the most difficult step, and it was tricky figuring out a safe solution. It took us about a week of designing various rope and ladder systems until we felt safe and secure moving around on the steep, metal roof.  Luckily, our previous experience as rock climbers made this rope work less daunting and far safer than it would have been without experience working at heights.  

student stripping wires for a solar panel installation

 
It took about two days from the start of mounting the two-by-fours on the roof, to when we had finished wiring the panels together and running the wiring down to the powerhouse that holds the charge controllers, inverters, battery banks, breaker boxes, etc.  We were thrilled to have finished this part of the project up on a rare sunny day so we could see just how much power our panels could produce.  In the most direct light we had, our panels were producing power at over 90% capacity which was thrilling!  All that was left to do was to conceal and label some wires, deconstruct some scaffolding, and appreciate the first watts of solar power ever generated at the Institute.  
 
Do you have an engineering background? Is that how you knew how to install solar panels on your own? What classes at Stanford (or individual study) prepared you for this project?
 
Farley: I did the Energy Sophomore College in Hawai’i through the Bill Lane Center, which offered me basic exposure to the fundamentals of how solar panels work. While I had never installed any solar panels myself prior to working at the Inian Islands Institute, I had many building skills from my mechanical engineering background and time spent in the Product Realization Lab. Paired with what I had learned in the Bill Lane Energy SoCo, I was able to problem-solve many aspects of the solar installation that were new to me.
 

Twarog: I have a background in electrical engineering, but haven’t taken classes that specifically go over solar panel design and installation. When we started looking into installing the panels ourselves, it turned out that it was actually pretty simple to wire panels together. The main difficulty was in figuring out what combinations of panels to wire together to minimize power loss, but with some online resources this was pretty easy to figure out. My circuits classes at Stanford definitely made me more comfortable working around electricity and electrical components in general. That being said, much of the work that we were doing with electricity was closer to work that an electrician would do. There are additional dangers when working in a breaker panel and high voltage/current electrical systems.

What would you say the significance or larger impact of this work is? Why was it important (not just for you in developing your skills, but for the community you served? The institute?)

Farley and Twarog: Before we installed the solar panels, the Institute relied on hydroelectric power for all of its energy needs. Hydropower is a great match for Southeast Alaska, which receives around 200 inches of precipitation each year. However, power is often unreliable during summer months when the island can go days without rain. The solar power from our installation kicks in on sunny days when the hydropower isn’t generating enough, offering increased energy reliability for the island. For dry, sunny stretches, our panels can provide enough power to turn on the water heater or to heat an additional building. It’s pretty exciting knowing that the result of our work will be felt for years to come on the Inian Islands.

 

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With support from the Lane Center, Stanford students install solar energy panels in a little-known rural western community - Alaska's Inian Islands.