Sun Bandit Achieves Industry First North of Arctic Circle

30 Jun 2017

In another world’s first, PV-powered Sun Bandit is demonstrating its superiority to old-school solar thermal by delivering consistently high-performance metrics in the lowest of temperatures.  

This solar milestone is a 26-foot solar hydroponic trailer, featuring the first off-grid photovoltaic (PV) solar water heating solution to heat water and channel stored energy into radiant heating that hydroponically grows fresh vegetables in sub-zero temperatures north of the Arctic Circle.  

The solution is the brainchild of Ingemar Mathiasson, the energy coordinator representing the Inupiat village of Kotzebue, Alaska and Passive House Institute (PHIUS)-certified contractor and energy rater Mark Houston of Anchorage-based The Comforts of Home.  

It’s a serious feat, as temperatures in Kotzebue can swing over 120 degrees during the course of a year, from a bone-chilling 40 degrees below zero in winter up to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. With a mean daily temperature of 21.8 degrees, it’s simply not warm enough to sustain a large community garden there – even in the summer.

“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, extending the growing season to 9 months a year,” said Houston.   

The solar hydroponic trailer not only supports an extended growing season, it’s saving money, as produce can be two to five times more expensive in Alaska than in the lower 48. Further, Alaska might be an oil-rich state, but that oil needs to be shipped to refineries and then redelivered. It’s not unusual for folks to pay $6 to $11 a gallon for oil to heat their buildings – particularly those living as far north as Kotzebue. Burning oil (and the cash that goes with it) wasn’t working for them.  

“I’ve been advising clients on energy conservation and alternative energy concepts for 30 years,” Houston said. “Kotzebue’s dark, bitter-cold winters are too much for traditional solar water heating systems. PV-powered water heating is a much better product to use in colder regions. 

"When village elders got wind of Sun Bandit, they knew they wanted it as their primary heat source for the trailer. Sun Bandit is four times more efficient than regular electric heat – and much lower-maintenance,” Houston said.  

 “At the end of the day, people don’t want to have to fix things in freezing temperatures.  They just want them to work,” Houston added. “That is where PV-powered Sun Bandit shines.”  

On days when the sun doesn’t shine, Sun Bandit optimizes energy production with an arsenal of built-in back-up and storage options. In on and off-grid situations, Sun Bandit can be configured with a small wind turbine or battery storage using grid-fed electricity, natural gas or propane as back-up.  

With Kotzebue’s solar hydroponic trailer, Sun Bandit is affirming the viabilityversatility and value proposition of solar hybrid water heating solutions in America’s coldest regions – and beyond.  

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