Innovators Driving Energy Independence: Solar Water Heating Delivers North of the Arctic Circle

An innovative village of native Alaskans is joining Passive House Institute (PHIUS) energy professionals and Next Generation Energy in celebrating days drenched in 24 hours of sunlight in the Land of the Midnight Sun by shedding light on the first off-grid photovoltaic (PV) solar water heating solution to heat water, channel stored energy into radiant heating and hydroponically grow fresh vegetables in sub-zero temperatures NORTH of the Arctic Circle.

Image: Kotzebue is the hub of 11 Native Alaskan villages in Alaska’s Northwest Arctic Borough, 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

The solution is manifested in a 26-foot solar hydroponic trailer located in the enterprising village of Kotzebue, Alaska, the hub of 11 Native Alaskan villages in the state’s Northwest Arctic Borough. Kotzebue is 26 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

Solar Hydroponics in Sub-Zero Temperatures

The solar hydroponic trailer is the brainchild of Ingemar Mathiasson and solar thermal veteran Mark Houston, founder and CEO of Anchorage-based The Comforts of Home, LLC. A Passive House Institute (PHIUS)-certified contractor/energy rater, Houston has been advising clients on energy conservation and alternative energy concepts for 30 years.

Image: This solar-powered hydroponic trailer can be sustained at 74 degrees with external temperatures as low as 40 degrees below zero, allowing the village to grow a bounty of fresh produce in often-dark, bitter-cold conditions for about nine months of the year.

“For the first time, we can keep the trailer at 74 degrees in sub-zero temperatures, which allows growing to begin as early as March,” said Houston. “We are collecting solar energy, converting it to heat, and running it through a glycol-based radiant floor and wall panel that provides all of the heat we need to grow a bounty of fresh produce in often-dark, bitter-cold conditions for about nine months of the year.”

The project was inspired when Mathiasson, the energy coordinator representing the Inupiat village of Kotzebue, asked Houston to build a sustainable, cost-effective solution to keep a trailer warm enough to grow fresh vegetables throughout the year.

Image: PHIUS: The Solar Hydroponic Trailer is the brainchild of Ingemar Mathiasson, energy coordinator for the Inupiat village of Kotzebue and PHIUS-certified Mark Houston of Anchorage, Alaska’s The Comforts of Home

It’s a tall task, as temperatures in Kotzebue swing 120 degrees during the course of a year, from a bitter 40 degrees below zero in winter to a chilly 54 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Even during the summer, it’s simply not warm enough to sustain a large community garden. With an average daily temperature of 21.8 degrees Fahrenheit, the best ‘vehicle’ to consistently serve the village with fresh produce was a hydroponic trailer. Mathiasson upped the ante by telling Houston he wanted the solution to be one without oil as the primary heat source.

Extended Growing Seasons for Otherwise-Pricey Fresh Produce

Image: Stored Sun Bandit energy supports radiant floor and wall heating to keep the Solar Hydroponic Trailer at 74 degrees in sub-zero temperatures.

The desire to grow fresh vegetables in many remote areas of Alaska isn’t new; Alaskans import up to 95 percent of their food. Houston says there are companies shipping hydroponic growing containers to Alaska, but they’re overly-sophisticated for the market. They have rotating racks and a bevy of bells and whistles. And they use oil, which can run from $6 to $11 a gallon, depending on the location. Not only is oil expensive for many Alaskans (it has to be refined and then delivered by ship or flown into remote villages); it’s also finite.

Kotzebue had tried using oil to heat their trailer, but when it came time to ventilate the space to eliminate water vapor emitted by the plants, the ventilation systems (sometimes as rudimentary as simple fans) rid the trailer of moisture, but took the heat as well, fostering less than ideal growing conditions.

Image: Sun Bandit can produce hot water up to 160 degrees and store energy even in sub-zero Arctic climates.

And then village elders got wind of Sun Bandit, the world’s first ICC SRCC-certified PV-powered solar water heating solution. Understanding PV’s known tolerance to colder temperatures, they asked Houston to conceive of a cleaner concept for heating and ventilating the trailer using Sun Bandit as the primary heat source.

“They didn’t need anything fancy. They just wanted a place they could reliably grow things. And they wanted to heat it without using oil,” Houston said. “Burning oil (and the cash that goes with it) wasn’t working for them.”

To solve the heat loss problem, Houston introduced a Minotair Air Source Heat Pump (ASHP) to remove unwanted moisture and contaminants and replenish the trailer with fresh outdoor air. The ASHP heats the stale, damp exhausting air to 150 degrees before it leaves the trailer. The heated air blends with fresh incoming air (whose temperatures can be as low as 40 degrees below zero), warming it to 66 degrees Fahrenheit before returning it to the growing area. This is a critical process, as air colder than that would damage or kill the plants.

A Hybrid Solution Spanning 120-Degree Temperature Swings — Even When the Sun Doesn’t Shine

Image: Houston integrated Sun Bandit’s solar electric hybrid water heating and storage solution with hydronic heating hybridized with a Sanden Air Source Heat Pump (with tolerances to 20 degrees below zero) and air sealing with urethane foam to finalize the solution.

By integrating the solar electric hybrid water heating and storage solution with hydronic heating that is hybridized with a Sanden air source heat pump (with tolerances to 20 degrees below zero) and air sealing with urethane foam, Houston has delivered a lower cost, oil-free innovation that provides fresh vegetables year-round in a difficult growing climate — and with a reduced carbon footprint.

Seven to eight months of the nine-month solar hydroponic trailer growing season will be supported using free solar hot water and radiant heat from stored energy.

Sun Bandit optimizes energy production with an arsenal of built-in back-up options for days when the sun doesn’t shine. In off-grid situations, these solar hybrid water heaters can be configured with a small wind turbine or battery backup to heat water and — as the Kotzebue project illustrates — support radiant floor heating and hydroponics. Sun Bandit is equipped to use grid-fed electricity, gas — or propane – when solar is not available as well.

PV Reliably Delivers Solar Hot Water in Colder Temperatures

Sun Bandit was selected for this project because it performs where old-school solar water heating systems can’t, eliminating fluids, leaks, pump stations, overheating, stagnation, freezing and the complicated installation and maintenance issues that can plague traditional mechanical solar water heating systems. 

“The exciting takeaway here is that freezing temperatures are no longer a barrier to solar hot water production — even in extreme conditions,” said Next Generation Energy CEO Dave Kreutzman. 

Broader Applications South of the Arctic Circle: Solar Water Heater for Floor and Air Heating

As a small business owner, installer and energy rater, Houston sees the broader market potential for solar hot water and heating solutions in homes in colder climates. He already has clients on contract to deliver these hybrid solutions.

“I’ve been in this business for decades. The Kotzebue project demonstrates that PV-powered water heating is a much better product to use in colder regions — it’s simple, low-maintenance and it can be installed in one third the time. It’s really the only one that works in the coldest, darkest of climates. And in its solar heating applications, Sun Bandit is four times more efficient than regular electric heat,” Houston said.

“At the end of the day, people don’t want to have to fix things in freezing temperatures — or any temperature for that matter. They just want them to work. That is where Sun Bandit shines.”

Author’s note: I met the Sun Bandit team at Solar Power International in 2015. They impressed me to the point where I identified Sun Bandit as one of my annual “Innovators Driving Energy Independence.” As a freelancer, I’ve since that time elected to write about them, as I believe in the viability of their product line to inspire solutions unique to the global clean energy marketplace.

This article was originally published by The ECOReport and was republished with permission.

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