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Bozeman Daily Chronicle
by: Jeff L. Fox
November 20, 2015

Montana Should Continue to Welcome Solar Energy

Recent weeks and months have proved to be an exciting time for solar energy in Montana. Homeowners, businesses, electric cooperatives, and large utilities have all shown increasing interest in solar at all scales as prices have declined by more than 80 percent over five years.

Rooftop, community, and utility-scale solar energy have all been gaining momentum in Montana over the past year, suggesting a future where much more of Montana’s energy needs can be met with the sun.

Take rooftop solar for example. The industry has shown consistent double-digit growth over recent years in the amount of solar energy installed on homes and businesses. Last year, rooftop solar installations tallied up to almost one megawatt of new solar for the state. Today there are more than 1,500 customers generating their own power with solar energy, and many believe that 2016 will be the biggest year ever for rooftop solar.

At the community scale, Flathead Electric Cooperative launched the state’s first “community solar” program this year, building a 100-kilowatt solar facility in Kalispell. The community solar program offers individual customers the opportunity to buy a solar panel and offset their electric use with the solar energy produced from the panel for the 25-year life of the facility. In September, Ravalli Electric Cooperative announced it too would offer their customers the opportunity to take part in a community solar farm. Other cooperatives are undoubtedly considering following on as solar is a popular energy choice among consumers, giving them a way to fix a portion of their energy costs and insulate themselves against potential rate increases.

At the larger end of the spectrum, just this week the Missoulian reported on the first utility-scale solar energy farms planned for Montana. Cypress Creek Renewables has plans for a 3-megawatt solar farm in Missoula, another 3-megawatt facility in Helena, and a 2-megawatt facility near Reedpoint. All in the 8 megawatts of solar should produce enough energy to meet the average annual energy demands of roughly 1,500 homes. And there are likely more utility-scale solar energy developers with interest in Montana, meaning additional projects could be announced soon.

Recent months have also seen NorthWestern Energy innovatively deploying solar energy to improve rural reliability in a project near Deer Lodge. The Beck Hill Road project combines 40 kilowatts of solar panels with battery storage to create a small “micro-grid” that is able to keep the lights on for rural residents when the area grid goes down. And, when the grid is operating correctly, the facility provides valuable grid services to all customers.

All-in-all the future for solar energy in Montana is looking bright, but there are policy decisions that could derail Montana’s momentum. The Montana Legislature, for instance, is debating the merits of rooftop solar for homeowners and businesses and could decide to restrict the freedom of individuals to self-generate their power with arbitrary rules or unjustified changes to the compensation self-generators receive for their excess power production.

Community solar programs are a bright spot for utility-consumer cooperation in providing customers with solar energy options. However, Montana law currently prohibits customers of NorthWestern Energy, the state’s largest utility, from participating in a community solar program. And the solar investment tax credit (ITC) that is the industry’s only significant federal subsidy is set to expire at the end of 2016 unless Congress acts. With one out of every 78 new jobs created in the U.S. in 2014 coming from solar, letting the ITC expire would put one of the fastest growing job creators in the nation at risk just as Montana is set to enjoy in more of that employment growth.

Solar energy provides valuable daytime energy, often at some of the costliest times for energy met with fossil fuel generation. Meeting more of our energy needs with solar energy can help to make the grid more robust, lower our environmental impact, defer expensive power plant and transmission additions, and save consumers money. Montanans should welcome solar energy into our portfolio mix, and do all we can to ensure fair policies to support it.

Jeff L. Fox is the Montana policy manager for Renewable Northwest, a nonprofit regional advocacy group promoting environmentally responsible renewable-energy resources.

Link to Story at Bozeman Daily Chronicle

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