Let the Sunshine In

DIY solar array installation (photo: Camp Denali)
DIY solar array installation (photo: Camp Denali)

We take tremendous delight and satisfaction in sharing Denali with visitors. At the core of our enterprise, our mission includes providing learning experiences, fostering stewardship of the natural world, and cultivating bonds of community.

From the Cockpit, Simon Hamm, co-owner of Camp Denali

But three years ago, the remote Camp was struck by two catastrophes that closed guest operations for the first time in 69 years.

COVID hit in early 2020, closing Camp Denali and all other world-wide destinations to tourists.

Plus, COVID collided with the indefinite closure of the only road into the park, a 92-mile artery with Camp Denali sitting at Mile 89. In August 2019, a major landslide at Pretty Rocks (Mile 45) closed the road. During 2020 and 2021, tons of gravel were dumped to temporarily keep the road open. The NPS finally gave up in August 2021. Federal funding was secured to build a 475-foot steel truss bridge over the Pretty Rocks landslide. Its current budget is $150 million, with reopening of the road pushed back until 2026.

While problems caused by the Pretty Rocks Landslide could have been solved by small repairs in the past, climate change has exacerbated the issue, according to park officials. Increasing temperatures and rainfall are thought to cause permafrost thaw, which is speeding up several landslides in the park.

The rate of road movement within the landslide evolved from inches per year prior to 2014, to inches per month in 2017, inches per week in 2018, inches per day in 2019, and up to 0.65 inches per hour in 2021.

Anchorage Daily News, April 20, 2022

Between the August 2021 closure and an inspection in April 2022, the road dropped about 40 feet, more than double its plunge the previous year.

In addition to food supplies, Camp Denali has depended on the road for the delivery of propane and fuel and the removal of septic waste and trash. Historically, Camp Denali used 5,000 gallons of fuel each summer to generate electricity.

With the road closure, the only transportation link is by air. Denali Air transports everything from guests to milk. But when delivered by air, a gallon of diesel costs US$20!

Fortunately, Camp Denali had started a solar array project in 2018 and completed it in 2020, finishing the installation with family help and a skeleton staff. The cost, prior to grants, was approximately US$600,000.

Being an engineer, one of the highlights of our trip was a tour of the solar array project led by Bryan Shaver, the Camp’s brilliant head of maintenance. For a fascinating look at what they’ve done up here, listen to Bryan’s explanation in my video.

Camp Denali now has 288 solar panels in 18 arrays with a capacity of 90 kilowatts. The project was described in its annual newsletter, Ptarmigan Tracks, in February 2020.

A mobile rig from Denali Drilling out of Anchorage came to the site to drill 18 holes for the support stands that hold the arrays. But bringing a piece of heavy equipment to the wilderness took some planning and a lot of hand-work.

We made things harder on ourselves, in the stewardship piece. We didn’t want the tundra all ripped up. Back-breaking effort by our staff, our crew of Camp Denali, to lay protective mat on top of tundra, replace tundra manually, by hand any time that it got disturbed in the slightest. Proud to say that it’s hard to tell that there’s been a drill rig out there.

KTOO, Robyn, KUAC Fairbanks February 23, 2021

To complement our on-site power generation, 18,000 pounds of nickel-iron batteries sit here at our winter office on pallets, awaiting the opening of the park road this spring. This tried-and-true battery technology can withstand being left dormant for seven months each year when winter temperatures may drop to minus 60°F. They’re resilient, have a projected 30-year lifespan and can be drawn down to within 20% of their storage capacity, but they’re heavy—150 pounds each.

Ptarmigan Tracks, in February 2020

Abundant electrical energy has enabled the Camp to add a new walk-in refrigerator, induction range tops and an electric proofing oven. In the spring of 2022, they converted all the propane-fuelled light fixtures in the 19 guest cabins to LED bulbs powered with rechargeable batteries.

Additional fuel savings have resulted from using passive solar heat collectors to generate hot water. And when the road reopens, electric vehicles will replace the aging vehicles that were wisely left behind to support the Camp when the evacuation occurred in August 21. (Imagine the cost of flying in a van!)

The Hamm’s are philosophical as they wait for the NPS to complete the Pretty Rocks bridge:

A friend of ours, Kim Heacox, has a great book, Rhythm of the Wild, about Denali and a wonderful line in it. He says,

 “Relax, the river has been here for 10,000 years.”

AlaskaPublic.org interview with Casey Grove April 15, 2020


From Camp Denali publications:

Project Roundup | Ptarmigan Tracks Newsletter | February 2020 

From the Cockpit. Denali Dispatch, a journal of the goings-on at Camp Denali. May 5, 2020.

Renewable Energy | Camp Denali

From other media:

Denali lodge owner weighs economics and ethics of late opening amid coronavirus uncertainty | Alaska Public Media – Anchorage | Casey Grove April 15, 2020

Wilderness resort installs large solar array outside Denali National Park | KTOO | February 23, 2021 by Robyn, KUAC Fairbanks

Camp Denali Develops 90kW Solar Project | Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) 

The Denali Park Road landslide made ‘shocking’ progress this winter, reinforcing the need for a fix | Anchorage Daily News. | Morgan Krakow| Updated: April 20, 2022

As the climate warms, the face of Denali National Park changes. Anchorage Daily News. | Samuels, Iris | Updated: July 18, 2023.


6 Responses

  1. Interesting article about Camp Denali having the foresight to install solar. Curious why the National Park Service is responsible for the bridge access if Camp Denali is a for profit venture?.

    1. In 2019, pre-COVID and the slide at mile 45, Denali had 600,000 visitors per year. Private vehicles were banned past Mile 15, so visitors took 80-100 shuttle buses per day to see the great views of Denali and enjoy the park experience. Their main destinations included the Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66 and Wonder Lake Camp Grounds at Mile 85, plus other lodges close to Kantishna at Mile 92. Without reopening the road, the main attractions would only be available to those who can afford to flight-see.

  2. Really enjoyed hearing about the planning and ingenuity that can be done. Certainly at great expense, though. As a child growing up at Ft. Vermilion we often heard about how important it was to protect the permafrost.

    When Don was working in the 70’s on Environmental Issues in Alaska, Yukon & the NWT this protection of the permafrost was one of their greatest challenges..

    Such a beautiful part of our world.

    1. The team working on the Mackenzie Valley Gas Pipeline, including Don, significantly advanced the science of permafrost protection. Some of those measures are now used to protect the permafrost at construction sites across the far north.

  3. It will be interesting to see how long these batteries actually last and then the removal plan once they are exhausted. As there is very little history in this regard, lifespan may be varied, especially in a climate like Denali. Although propane lights may be expensive they also provide heat as well as illumination, not always a bad thing, in my opinion of course.

    1. In 1901, Thomas Edison patented the NiFe battery as the energy source for electric vehicles, so the technology has been around for a long time. Recently, they have become an excellent storage for solar systems. They tolerate 10,000+ charge-discharge cycles, so a 30 to 50 year life is achievable. Further, they can handle the extremes of Alaska, with an operating temperature range of -40C to 46C.

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