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1950s building in downtown Anchorage to get a solar powered infusion

By Elizabeth Bluemink
Anchorage Daily News


One of downtown Anchorage's aging office buildings is about to get an eco-friendly makeover.

As the days grow longer this spring, a towering wall of 64 solar energy panels is scheduled to arise on the Fifth Avenue and E Street building, which sits just east of the Egan Convention Center. It's one of the few solar projects of its kind in Alaska.

The 1957 building already needed a face lift, said Anchorage businessman Steve Zelener, who purchased it last August.

Unsightly metal panels cover the building's south side -- the part most visible to pedestrians.

Zelener knew replacing the panels could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Why bother with granite or metal? Why not create a ground-breaking renewable-energy project in the heart of downtown Anchorage?

It didn't hurt that many of Zelener's tenants in the building are conservation groups interested in reducing fossil-fuel dependence.

Zelener and his colleagues reasoned that the solar panels might help make the four vacant units in the building attractive to other green groups and to cutting-edge firms.


Zelener's project is the largest solar panel installation so far on a commercial building in town, said architect Klaus Mayer, who designed the retrofit.

In fact, Mayer suggested fewer solar panels and was surprised that Zelener wanted to blanket the southern facade with them.

The installation cost is estimated at $100,000, but the project is qualified for a 30 percent federal renewable energy tax credit for commercial buildings. No such tax incentives exist at the state or local level, though they do in parts of the Lower 48.

The panels should supply 11,651 kilowatts per year -- 5 to 10 percent of the five-story building's electricity needs, said Marvin Kuentzel, of Renewable Energy Systems, the Anchorage business that ordered the panels and will install them.

For a typical solar retrofit on a single commercial building, the cost of Zelener's project is a lot to swallow. Strictly speaking, he won't recoup the investment for 20 to 25 years.

Most businesses aren't interested in renewable projects with a payback period that long, Mayer said.

Zelener is undaunted. He plans to install a ticker device so visitors can watch how much energy the solar panels are generating.

"We don't know how it work, but if we generate the energy we expect and get tenant interest, we are looking at (renewable energy) for other buildings," Zelener said.

One of his tenants, Nils Warnock of Audubon Alaska, said he's pleased with the project.

"The more we can do to diversify our energy resources, the better we are in the long term. Every little drop helps," Warnock said.


Solar energy projects in Alaska aren't limited to panels producing electricity.

Two other options that have been installed in the state are passive solar systems -- strategically-placed windows that bring in light and heat, for example -- and thermal energy systems, which concentrate sunlight to heat water or air in a building.

But these solar projects are more common in rural Alaska than in the state's urban centers, where fuel for heating and electricity is much cheaper.

Solar panels would not be a good choice for a business or homeowner in Anchorage expecting to pay off the installation cost in a few years.

"The business community typically won't touch renewable stuff unless the project (payback) is five years or less. Or, unless they want to be a pioneer," said Andy Baker of YourCleanEnergy. His Anchorage firm installs solar energy systems and does energy audits around Alaska. A few years ago, he installed a solar thermal system on an East Anchorage triplex.

The first office building in Alaska equipped with a large array of solar panels was the Bering Straits Native Corp. headquarters in Nome, which also houses a restaurant, government offices and a few other businesses. The 93 panels were installed in 2007, and the payback period for the investment is estimated at 11 or 12 years.

So far, the Nome project has gone "really well" and a few other property owners in town have paid Bering Straits to install panels on their buildings, said Bering Straits vice president Jerald Brown.

"I was looking at the stats a couple days ago, and we produced 14,000 kilowatt hours of electricity last year. That's a little over $5,000 worth of electricity," he said.


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