System Profiles

Pinkerton Ranch, Hysham
German Home, Missoula
Larkspur Commons, Bozeman
Schmidt Home, Missoula
Hawk Home, Missoula
Des Rosier Home, Whitehall
Wentzel Apiaries, Twin Bridges
Haque-Hausrath Home, Helena
Off-Grid Ranch, Southwest Montana
Borden’s Hotel, Whitehall
Watson Irrigation, Townsend
Flathead Electric Community Solar, Kalispell
Weiner Home, Bozeman
Butte Brewing Company, Butte
Mendelson Home, Missoula
Grouse Camp, south of Malta
Capital High School, Helena
Foust Solar Water Heating, Bozeman
Hill Pole Mount, Three Forks
Bitter Root Brewery, Hamilton
Hill View Apartments, Havre
Emerson Center, Bozeman
Billings Public Library, Billings
Larson Home, Missoula
Sembach-Tralongo Home, Missoula
St. Jude Thaddeus School, Havre
Home on the Range Building, Billings
Darby Community Public Library, Darby


Cattle Ranch Installs First Solar Array in Mid-Yellowstone Electric Co-op

10 kilowatt solar array at the Pinkerton cattle ranch near Hysham, Montana

10 kilowatt solar array at the Pinkerton cattle ranch near Hysham, Montana

Noelle and Richard Pinkerton are proud owners of the first net metered solar array in the Mid-Yellowstone Electric Cooperative.  Their 10 kilowatt solar system generates power for the barn, office, and outbuildings at their cattle ranch near Hysham, Montana.

The Pinkertons were motivated to install solar by the prospect of lowering their power bills.  John Palm, owner of Bozeman Green Build, who installed the Pinkertons’ solar array, points out that at 12.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, Mid-Yellowstone Electric’s rates are relatively high by Montana standards. This makes solar a particularly attractive investment. According to John’s projections, the Pinkertons will see a nine year payback on their solar investment and will benefit from an additional $55,000 in averted energy costs over the life of the system.

View from the roof: the solar array and part of the ranch.

View from the roof: the solar array and part of the ranch.

Noelle Pinkerton reports that while their solar array was the first to be installed on Mid-Yellowstone Electric Co-op’s lines, “The co-op was very receptive and willing to work with us.”

John Palm adds, “The Co-op managers and linesmen have been excited to learn about solar PV and this project provided that opportunity. As first adopters, the Pinkertons’ system has garnered a lot of attention. Due to the system’s exceptionally visible location, many neighbors of the owners have stopped to inquire and are eagerly awaiting the Pinkertons’ report on the system’s performance.”

Noelle confirms that her neighbors are interested. “A lot of people are like, ‘What do you have on your roof?’ And once they hear about it, they say, ‘We’re going to see how this works for you, and then we’re looking into it [for ourselves].’”

Quick Stats – Pinkerton Ranch Solar Array

Location: Hysham, Montana
Owner: Richard and Noelle Pinkerton
Installer: Bozeman Green Build
Utility Service Territory: Mid-Yellowstone Electric Cooperative
Month Completed: July 2016
Capacity: 10.0 kilowatts
Financing and Incentives: USDA REAP grant, federal tax credit
Equipment Used: (30) Q-CELLS 325 Watt modules, Fronius Primo 10.0 inverter, Unirac SolarMount Flush racking

 


Solarize Missoula customer: “I would encourage everybody to do it”

Steve German's new rooftop solar array

Steve German’s new rooftop solar array

Steve German had been thinking about solar for a while.  “My daughter in Portland installed a system several years ago, and it’s been in my mind for quite some time that I should do it also,” he recalled recently.

So when Steve read about ‘Solarize Missoula’ in the Missoulian late last year, he was interested.  Solarize Missoula was a program to significantly increase solar installations in Missoula by making it simpler and more affordable for homeowners to pursue solar. The program was organized by the Montana Renewable Energy Association in partnership with the Missoula Federal Credit Union, Climate Smart Missoula, the City of Missoula, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The 11 solar panels have a total capacity of 3.135 kilowatts.

The 11 solar panels have a total capacity of 3.135 kilowatts.

On December 1, 2015 Steve attended an information session about Solarize Missoula at the public library, and signed up for a free site assessment through the program.  He was assigned to Jordan Solar, one of the four local solar businesses that participated in Solarize Missoula.

After the site assessment, a structural engineering report revealed that Steve’s attic required additional supports to handle the weight of the solar panels. Steve did this work himself and passed the inspection with no problems.

As Steve recalls, “The whole process was easy. Dealing with Janelle [Stauff, of Jordan Solar] was very pleasant, everything was on time and carried out professionally and I was quite satisfied.”

Steve’s 3.135 kilowatt rooftop solar array was completed in May 2016, and Steve reports that it is performing as expected. “Janelle sent me a graph of anticipated production from the panels, and for the month of June I was within just a few kilowatt-hours of the prediction.”

His final comment?  “I would encourage everybody to do it.”

Quick Stats – German Solar Array

Location: University District, Missoula
Owner: Steve German
Installer: Jordan Solar
Other Contractors Involved: BCE Engineers
Utility Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month Completed: May 2016
Capacity: 3.135 kilowatts
Pre-incentive project cost: $10,345
Financing and Incentives: Federal and state tax credits
Equipment Used: 11x 285W SolarWorld modules, SolarEdge DC optimizers and 3000 watt inverter


Solar Hot Water and Solar Electricity Cut Costs for Bozeman Affordable Housing Project

Installing the mounting structure for solar hot water panels at Larkspur Commons

Installing the mounting structure for solar hot water panels at Larkspur Commons

This fall, the first residents will move in to the brand new 136-unit Larkspur Commons affordable housing development in Bozeman, serving residents earning less than 60% of the area’s median income. They may not know it yet, but two types of solar energy systems will reduce utility costs at their new home. Larkspur Commons is being built to include both a 4,000 square foot solar hot water system and a 12.42 kilowatt solar electric array on its roofs.

Larkspur Commons is owned by a partnership that includes Homeword of Missoula and GMD Development of Seattle. According to Steve Dymoke, Vice President of GMD Development, the decision to incorporate solar into the project was primarily about cost savings. In order to take advantage of a federal low income housing tax credit, they must retain ownership of the property for at least 15 years. As Steve explains, “Rents are restricted as part of the program but our operating costs are the same as a market rate developer, so we’re very focused on operating expenses and controlling costs in the long term. Solar is a cost-saving measure over the 15 year time horizon, particularly in a sunny place like Bozeman where even in the winter we’ll be generating a significant amount of electricity and hot water to offset our operating costs.”

A crane lifts solar hot water panels into place

A crane lifts solar hot water panels into place

Liquid Solar Systems is installing the solar hot water system at Larkspur Commons, and Onsite Energy is installing the solar electric system. Both are Bozeman-based businesses. Todd Hoitsma, owner of Liquid Solar Systems, explains that the project includes 16 separate solar hot water systems, each feeding 6-9 apartments with pre-heated water for each apartment’s own water heater. Overall, the capacity of the system is a whopping 5.6 million BTU/year, which Todd calculates is equivalent in energy terms to a 165 kilowatt solar electric system.

Solar hot water is a great fit for large multi-family developments like Larkspur Commons, Todd says. “Commercial projects like this with a high and consistent demand for hot water maximize the efficiency of solar hot water systems. Each solar hot water system on this project will operate in the 55-70% efficiency range, which is much higher than many residential solar hot water systems, not to mention solar electric systems.”

The solar electric system at Larkspur Commons will provide power to common areas such as a community room, kitchen, and outside lighting.

Solar hot water panels on one of the buildings at Larkspur Commons

Solar hot water panels on one of the buildings at Larkspur Commons

Roof space was a challenge for the solar installers. South-facing roofs are ideal for solar, but there wasn’t enough south-facing roof space at Larkspur Commons to accommodate all of the solar panels. Orion Thornton, co-owner of Onsite Energy, explains, “We had to really coordinate on the available roof space. We ended up putting the PV panels on a west-facing roof because the much larger solar hot water system took up all of the south-facing roof space, and some of the east- and west-facing roof space as well.”

In addition to solar, Larkspur Commons is being built to incorporate a number of energy efficiency measures including energy efficient windows and good insulation.  According to Steve, “For the residents, the benefit will be a real comfortable year-round living environment and lower utility costs.”

Quick Stats – Larkspur Commons Solar Arrays

Location: South of Oak St. between North 12th and North 14th Avenues, Bozeman
Owner: Homeword and GMD Development
Installer: Liquid Solar Systems (solar hot water), Onsite Energy (solar PV)
Other Contractors Involved: Rotherham Construction (general), Rocky Mountain Electric, D.J.’s Electric
Utility Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month Completed: In progress
Capacity: Solar Hot Water: 5.6 million BTU/year; Solar PV: 12.42 kilowatts
Financing and Incentives: Federal tax credit
Equipment Used: Solar Hot Water: 4,000 square feet of SunEarth 4×10 flat panels; Solar PV: (36) SolarWorld 345W panels, (1) SolarEdge 10 kW inverter, SnapNrack Series 100 racking


‘Solarize’ Makes Solar Simple for Missoula Couple

Peggy and Ben Schmidt in front of their Missoula home

Peggy and Ben Schmidt in front of their Missoula home

Ever since they bought their first home 20 years ago, Ben and Peggy Schmidt of Missoula have had rooftop solar in mind.  The Schmidts have always been environmentally conscious; they both have graduate degrees in environmental studies from the University of Montana, and today Ben works as an Air Quality Specialist for the county, and Peggy, who has an environmental education background, works as a preschool teacher.  As Ben explains, “I think it’s important to take some personal responsibility to reduce our carbon emissions and do what we can to address a serious global issue.”

When they first looked into solar 20 years ago, they couldn’t afford it.

But the price of solar has dropped dramatically in recent years, and by the time Solarize Missoula was launched in 2015, says Ben, “it got to the point where it was within our price range and we could actually do something.”

Solarize Missoula was a program to significantly increase solar installations in Missoula by making it simpler and more affordable for homeowners to pursue solar. The program was organized by the Montana Renewable Energy Association in partnership with the Missoula Federal Credit Union, Climate Smart Missoula, the City of Missoula, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The Schmidts appreciated that Solarize Missoula made the process simple for them. They didn’t have to contact multiple solar companies for bids, since they knew they’d be guaranteed a good price (set by Solarize Missoula) and that they’d be working with one of four solar companies that had been vetted by the program.

After signing up for Solarize Missoula online, the Schmidts were contacted by Big Sky Solar and Wind, the company that was assigned to them by the program. A representative of Big Sky Solar and Wind then visited the home for a site evaluation. In addition to evaluating the solar potential of their roof, the representative talked with Ben and Peggy about their cost constraints and how much of their annual electricity use they were hoping to offset with solar.

After the site evaluation, Big Sky Solar and Wind sent a diagram and price quote for a proposed 3.12 kilowatt system, and the Schmidts signed a contract to have it installed. A crew from Big Sky Solar and Wind installed the system; a NorthWestern Energy technician installed the net meter; and in May 2016, the Schmidt solar installation was up and running.

The Schmidts' new rooftop solar array

The Schmidts’ new rooftop solar array

Peggy says, “We were very pleased with the whole process, from site assessment through installation.  It was a good example of good customer service.”

The total system cost was $10,296; after federal and state tax credits, that will drop to around $6,500.  The Schmidts are members of the Missoula Federal Credit Union, and they financed their system with a solar loan from the credit union.

Ben and Peggy enjoy tracking the production of their solar panels, and they expect their system to offset between half and two-thirds of their annual electricity use. Ben says, “I like looking at the net meter to see what we’re putting back on the grid. When our system is producing the most, that’s when a lot of people in Missoula are using a lot of electricity, like hot summer days when people have the A/C on. So I know our extra solar electricity is being used here in our community.”

Quick Stats – Schmidt Solar Array

Location: Missoula, Montana
Owner: Ben and Peggy Schmidt
Installer: Big Sky Solar and Wind
Utility Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month Completed: May 2016
Capacity: 3.12 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $10,296
Financing and Incentives: Missoula Federal Credit Union solar loan, federal and state tax credits
Equipment Used: (12) Canadian Solar 260 watt photovoltaic modules, (12) Enphase micro-inverters


‘Solarize Missoula’ Spurs Homeowner to Fulfill Longtime Goal

Gary Hawk with the new solar array on his woodworking shop

Gary Hawk in front of the new solar array on his woodworking shop

Gary Hawk of Missoula has had many occupations in his life—Congregationalist minister, professional woodworker, university professor—and now that he’s retired he has been able to fulfill a decades-long dream: owning a rooftop solar system. Gary’s interest in renewable energy dates back to the environmental movement of the ‘70s, when he first began to explore how his spiritual convictions converged with his environmental beliefs. It was clear to Gary that fossil fuel use was degrading the climate and the environment, and he has been attracted to renewable energy ever since. The ‘Solarize Missoula’ program was the catalyst Gary needed to fulfill his goal of rooftop solar.

Solarize Missoula was a program to dramatically increase solar installations in Missoula by making it simpler and more affordable for homeowners like Gary to go solar. Solarize Missoula was organized by the Montana Renewable Energy Association in partnership with the Missoula Federal Credit Union, Climate Smart Missoula, the City of Missoula, and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Gary looks at the solar inverter mounted on the wall of his woodworking shop

Gary looks at the solar inverter mounted on the wall of his woodworking shop

Gary heard about Solarize Missoula on the radio and attended an information session about it at the Missoula public library in December 2015. At the information session, he learned that he could sign up for a free solar site assessment to be conducted by one of the four local solar installers participating in the program. After the site assessment, he would have the option to choose whether or not to have a solar system installed. Solarize Missoula also set pricing for solar installations completed through the program so participants could be sure they were getting a good deal.

Gary signed up, and was contacted soon after by SBS Solar to schedule a site assessment. At the assessment, Dan Brandborg, owner of SBS Solar, identified the south-facing roof of Gary’s woodworking shop as the best place on the property for a solar array.

Gary decided to take full advantage of the space on his shop roof and have a 6.5 kilowatt solar array installed. That size will allow him to power both his home and his woodworking machinery with solar. His system is net metered, and Gary likes the fact that when he produces more electricity than he uses on-site, he’s contributing solar energy to the grid.

Gary was greatly impressed by the team at SBS Solar and the pace at which they operated; the solar panels were installed quickly and the net meter was connected by NorthWestern Energy on March 11, 2016. Gary immediately began to track the energy produced by his solar panels. He enjoys watching the kilowatt-hours rack up: “It’s coal and gas that they’re not burning.”

Quick Stats – Hawk Solar Array

Location: Missoula, Montana
Owner: Gary Hawk
Installer: SBS Solar
Utility Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month completed: March 2016
Capacity: 6.5 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $21,000
Incentives used: Federal and state tax credits
Equipment Used: (20) Solar World Sunmodule SW325 modules, 6000 watt SolarEdge Grid-tie Inverter, (20) SolarEdge Optimizers


‘Aunty Joy’ Turns to Solar

'Aunty Joy' in front of her new solar array

‘Aunty Joy’ in front of her new solar array

At an age of “almost 90,” Joy Des Rosier of Whitehall, Montana is not one to leave problems for future generations. Her late husband, who passed away in 2003, always had interest in wind and solar power. A couple of years ago Aunty Joy, as she is affectionately called by friends and family, decided to do a bit of research into what it would take for her to transition to a renewable energy system. Joy expressed her motivation in a phone interview: “We do need a better energy system, and I realize a lot of Montanans depend on coal, but I didn’t want to have to.”

After looking into solar and wind power, she decided solar would be her best bet. Her house and garage were built facing south, ideal for solar panels. Joy reached out to three solar installers and eventually settled on Thirsty Lake Solar of Bozeman. Joy said Jeff Wongstrom, the owner of Thirsty Lake Solar, got right to work after they talked. She spoke very highly of Jeff and his outfit: “I really hope people consider Thirsty Lake, they were so prompt and so thorough.”

The solar array on Joy Des Rosier's Whitehall home

The solar array on Joy Des Rosier’s Whitehall home

Joy opted to have a 2.8 kilowatt solar system installed. However, she wanted to keep the possibility open of adding additional solar panels in the future, since she’s considering converting her gas water heater to on-demand electric. Thirsty Lake Solar accommodated her request by oversizing the inverter from 3,000 to 6,000 watts and positioning the solar panels in such a way that more could be added to the roof later. Aunty Joy is, in her own words, “tremendously pleased” with her new solar installation.

Quick Stats – Des Rosier Solar Array

Location: Whitehall, Montana
Owner: Joy Des Rosier
Installer: Thirsty Lake Solar
Utility Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month completed: June 2015
Capacity: 2.8 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $12,000
Incentives used: Federal and state tax credits
Equipment Used: (10) Solarworld 280SM+ modules, SMA Sunny Boy 6000TL inverter with Secure Power Supply, IronRidge racking, Sunny Portal monitoring system


‘Solar Wall’ Warms Up Wentzel Apiaries

Shawn Wentzel harvests honey in a sainfoin field (photo: Allison Wentzel)

Shawn Wentzel harvests honey in a sainfoin field (photo: Allison Wentzel)

Shawn Wentzel is a third-generation beekeeper and owner with his wife Allison of Wentzel Apiaries in Twin Bridges, Montana. In addition to keeping bees and processing honey, they grow 350 acres of sainfoin hay and raise cattle. Bees are attracted to the sainfoin and use it to produce high-quality honey; and after the sainfoin flowers, it’s harvested and fed to the cows.

Several years ago Shawn and Allison reached out to Wayne Baker, owner of Baker Light Industries, a renewable energy business in Alder, Montana. At the time they were burning $8,000 worth of propane each year and looking for a way to reduce fuel costs. Wayne suggested a high-efficiency wood boiler. Today, the wood boiler saves the Wentzels $7,000 per year in fuel costs while providing the heat that they need for processing honey as well as heating their home, garage, shop, and greenhouse.

Shawn reached out to Wayne again this year when he started building a pole barn on the cattle ranch. The barn will be used to store a tractor, and it’s far from the nearest power line. Shawn was interested in either a heating or electric system to warm up the tractor enough to start it on subzero winter days. Shawn and Wayne discussed several options, including a wood boiler with an off-grid solar electric system to run the boiler’s pumps and fan. Ultimately, however, Wayne recommended a much lower-cost and lower-tech solution: a south-facing ‘solar wall,’ also known as a passive solar air collector, that would draw heat into the barn on sunny winter days.

The solar wall.

The solar wall.

When Wayne explained the idea, Shawn was concerned about summer: would the solar wall make the barn too hot? Wayne explained that a large eave over the solar wall would shade it from the high summer sun, while allowing it to be warmed in winter when the sun stays lower in the sky. Shawn plans on installing a wood stove in the shop for cloudy winter days when he needs more heat than the wall provides.

Wayne was able to construct the solar wall using only materials that Shawn had already purchased to build the barn, with just one addition: polycarbonate greenhouse glazing. The glazing was used to make a 8’x30’ window on the south-facing wall of the barn, starting four feet up the wall and reaching the eaves. The tin that would have covered the south wall was painted black and hung on the inside of the framing 11 inches behind the glazing. They left an 18 inch gap from the floor to the bottom of the inner wall, and left the top 18 inches of the clear glazing exposed along the top so light could get in. When the wall warms up, cold air is drawn in the bottom and the heated air floats out the top into the barn.

Interior of the solar wall.

Interior of the solar wall.

The solar wall was just completed last week, and the barn is still under construction. Shawn says, “I thought [the solar wall] was a pretty neat idea. If it works on this little building, we’ll put another one on a bigger shop we’re going to build in the next year or two.”

Quick Stats – Wentzel Solar Wall

Location: Twin Bridges
Owner: Shawn and Allison Wentzel, Wentzel Apiaries
Installer: Baker Light Industries
Month Completed: February 2016
Total Project Cost: $400 materials, 8 man-hours of labor
Materials Used: 8’ by 30’ polycarbonate greenhouse glazing


Solar Complements Ground-Source Heat Pump for Helena Family

Solar panels on the roof of the Haque-Hausrath home in Helena

Solar panels on the roof of the Haque-Hausrath home in Helena

When Katherine and Shahid Haque-Hausrath bought their home in South-Central Helena, one of their first tasks was to replace the antiquated, unsafe heating system. After considering their options they decided to install a ground-source heat pump. Ground-source heat pumps take advantage of the fact that the earth, just a few feet down, maintains a much more constant temperature year-round than the air. By using the ground as a heat source in winter and a heat sink in summer, ground-source heat pumps can heat and cool a home quite efficiently. The Haque-Hausraths liked the idea of reducing their heating bills as well as their environmental footprint, and the decision also made sense financially: after tax credits, the ground-source heat pump cost only a little more than a new conventional heating system. The Haque-Hausraths used a low-interest loan from the state’s Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program to finance the ground-source heat pump, which was installed in 2009 by Superior Heating of Helena.

The solar pavilion constructed by Solar Montana

The solar pavilion constructed by Solar Montana

Ground-source heat pumps use electricity, and the Haque-Hausraths next began considering ways to reduce their electric bills while further reducing their environmental footprint. In 2015 they approached Solar Montana about a solar electric system. According to Jackson Isbell, owner of Solar Montana, “After initial consultation it became clear that the roof space was not of adequate size for the amount of solar modules needed.” A ground-mounted or pole-mounted solar array in the yard would allow for a larger system, but the Haque-Hausraths are parents of young children and were hesitant to sacrifice a lot of yard space.

Underside of the pavilion

Underside of the pavilion

Solar Montana suggested a solar pavilion: a shade structure in the yard that would provide a gathering place for barbecues and outdoor dining while supporting solar panels on its roof. The Haque-Hausraths loved the idea. Ultimately, Solar Montana designed and built the pavilion – which features lighting, an electrical outlet, and 7.4 kilowatts of solar panels – and also installed 4.1 kilowatts of solar on the roof of the home.

The installation was completed in November 2015, and the Haque-Hausrath family is looking forward to enjoying the pavilion – and their reduced electric bills – this summer. According to Katherine, “We’re really excited about being able to offset our greenhouse gases and do our part to reduce climate change. [The solar pavilion is] really attractive, and it’s a great way to install solar panels if there isn’t a lot of room on the roof.”

Quick Stats – Haque-Hausrath Solar Array

Location: South-Central Helena
Owner: Katherine and Shahid Haque-Hausrath
Installer: Solar Montana
Other Contractor Involved: Apex Electric
Utility/Co-op Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month Completed: November 2015
Capacity: 11.55 kW (7.4 kW on pavilion, 4.1 kW on home roof)
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $37,865 including construction of pavilion
Incentives Used: Tax credits
Equipment Used: 42 REC 275 Watt Solar Modules, Solar Edge Inverter and Optimizers


Horse-Drawn Wagons Bring Solar to Remote Montana Ranch

Pole-mounted solar array at an off-grid ranch in southwest Montana.

Pole-mounted solar array at an off-grid ranch in southwest Montana.

Solar arrived this fall at a remote guest ranch in southwest Montana…and it came by horse-drawn wagon.  The ranch is surrounded by wilderness, and all people and equipment must travel 13 miles by horse and wagon to access it. Motorized vehicles are prohibited by law.

The off-grid ranch, which houses up to 30 people at peak season, was until recently powered by a diesel generator running 24 hours a day.  Of course, that meant bringing in thousands of gallons of diesel by horse-drawn wagon, at great expense.  This year, the ranch contracted with Independent Power Systems (IPS) of Bozeman to install a battery bank that will cut generator run time in half, reducing diesel consumption significantly.

The battery bank.

The battery bank.

According to Barton Churchill of IPS, “This was a very unique off grid power system for IPS because of the complicated logistics of moving more than 16,000 lbs of equipment by horse and buggy over 13 miles of primitive road.”

Taking into account the savings on diesel fuel, plus the horse use and man-hours to bring in the diesel, the estimated payback of the system is 7 years.  But payback wasn’t the ranch owners’ only consideration.  Barton Churchill explains, “Perhaps the greatest benefit to the ranch will be silence, with only the sounds of a river, wind through the valley, and the abundant wildlife of this remote region of Montana.”

IPS also installed a small pole-mounted solar array at the site.  The 1.6 kW solar system won’t offset a significant amount of diesel use, but it will serve an important purpose: keeping the batteries healthy during the seven months of the year that the ranch is vacant and the road impassible.  The solar array may be scaled up in the future.

The installation was completed in October 2015, and the assistant ranch manager reports that it was only in use for six days before weather required the ranch to be vacated.  But during those days, “It was awesome. We were getting two and three days diesel fuel free.”  And, no doubt, enjoying the silence.

Quick Stats – Southwest Montana Ranch Battery and Solar Array

Location: Privately-owned guest ranch in Southwest Montana
Installer: Independent Power Systems
Utility/Co-op Service Territory: Off-Grid
Month Completed: October 2015
Capacity: 1.6 kW solar
Equipment Used: 6 Kyocera 265 Watt solar modules; 48 1104 A/H Rolls deep cycle batteries divided into 4 strings for a total of 4416 AH at 48V; five Outback Radian 8488 8,000 watt 240v inverters; two Outback FX80 charge controllers.


Solar, Energy Efficiency Revitalize Historic Borden’s Hotel

Borden's Hotel, Whitehall, Montana (photo: Jefferson Local Development Corporation)

Borden’s Hotel, Whitehall (photo: Jefferson Local Development Corporation)

Borden’s Hotel in downtown Whitehall, Montana has a colorful history as a saloon, hotel and dance hall dating back to 1913.  But in the decades following the death of original owner Hilda Borden in 1971, the Whitehall landmark has been mostly vacant and fallen into disrepair. Several business owners tried and failed to make a go of it, stymied in part by the high energy bills of an old, leaky building.

A 2009 fire proved to be the turning point for the old hotel.  That fire, which destroyed five neighboring buildings but spared Borden’s Hotel, prompted the nonprofit Jefferson Local Development Corporation (JLDC) to purchase the building with the goal of revitalizing downtown Whitehall. With the help of federal and state historic preservation tax credits, JLDC undertook a major renovation of Borden’s Hotel while preserving its historic charm.  The ground floor of the building now houses several offices, including MSU Extension, while the upstairs features nine loft-style apartments, two of which are used as short-term vacation rentals in the spirit of the old hotel.

Solar array on the roof of Borden's Hotel, with ballasts visible between rows of solar panels

Solar array on the roof of Borden’s Hotel, with ballasts visible between rows of solar panels. The array is not visible from the ground per a requirement of the National Register of Historic Places.

The renovation included numerous energy efficiency improvements, including upgraded insulation and more efficient mechanical systems. It also included a 12 kilowatt solar array on the roof, installed by Sundance Solar Systems. Henry Dykema, owner of Sundance Solar Systems, reports that since the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there was a requirement that the solar panels not be visible from the ground.  This requirement, plus obstructions on the roof, led Sundance Solar Systems to use a ballasted racking system rather than the more typical attached racking system. Ballasted racking systems use weights to hold the solar panels down rather than attaching them directly to the roof (see photo).

The renovation of Borden’s Hotel was selected as the Outstanding Local Renovation Project for 2015 by the Montana Historical Society.  As for the solar array, Henry Dykema reports that it is performing well.  “The system was estimated to produce about 1,200 kilowatt-hours per month,” he says, “but it was out-performing that the last time I stopped by.”

Quick Stats – Borden’s Hotel Solar Array

Location: Borden’s Hotel, 103 W Legion Avenue, Whitehall MT
Owner: Jefferson Local Development Corporation
Installer: Sundance Solar Systems
Other Contractor Involved: Sacry Electric (Whitehall)
Utility/Co-op Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month Completed: May 2015
Capacity: 12.24 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $42,000
Incentives Used: Rural Energy for America (REAP) grant, NorthWestern Energy USB incentive, federal tax credit
Equipment Used: 48 Trina Solar 255W modules, Fronius 11.4 string inverter


Solar “An Easy Decision” for Watson Irrigation

For Watson Irrigation of Townsend, Montana, solar was primarily a financial decision.

Installation of Watson Irrigation's 50 kilowatt solar array

Installation of Watson Irrigation’s 50 kilowatt solar array

“It penciled out quick and easy,” explains Konnor Kelsey, Watson Irrigation Operations Manager.  “We’re expecting a seven year return on investment, and the warranties are ten years for the inverters and 25 years for the panels. Equipment that’s paid off while it’s still under warranty?  It was an easy decision.”

In fact, Konnor explains that the firm would have preferred to install a larger solar array, but was prevented from doing so by state law. Watson Irrigation’s solar array is 50 kilowatts, the maximum allowed by the state’s net metering law.  It would have taken a 70-75 kilowatt array to offset their electricity use.  A larger array “would have been a no-brainer,” Konnor says. “[The law] is a real limiting factor.”

Back view of the new steel mounting structure built through the old shed roof

Back view of the new steel mounting structure built through the old shed roof

Watson Irrigation’s solar array was installed by Bozeman Green Build.  Bozeman Green Build owner John Palm explains that the most interesting aspect of the job was designing a novel mounting structure for the solar panels.  Watson Irrigation didn’t have any ground space to spare, and their shop roof wasn’t angled right for solar.  A long, south-facing storage shed on the property would have been just right, expect that it wasn’t sturdy enough to withstand the weight of the solar array.  Working with Bozeman engineering firm Nishkian Monks, they designed a support structure involving 6 inch steel pipes that were dropped through the shed roof and into the ground. I-beams were welded to the steel pipes above the shed roof, and the solar panels were installed on this structure. Watson Irrigation did much of the welding and fabrication work in-house.

The installation was completed in September 2015, and Watson Irrigation is pleased with its production so far.  “It’s been live for about a month and so far we’ve banked about 2,500 kilowatt-hours,” says Konnor.  “I’m expecting it to take away 85 percent of our power bill over the year.”

Quick Stats – Watson Irrigation Solar Array

Location: Watson Irrigation, 7837 Highway 287, Townsend
Owner: Watson Irrigation
Installer: Bozeman Green Build
Other Contractors Involved: Nishkian Monks (engineering), Watson Irrigation (welding and fabrication)
Utility/Co-op Service Territory: NorthWestern Energy
Month Completed: September 2015
Capacity: 49.96 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $131,000
Incentives Used: Rural Energy for America (REAP) grant, NorthWestern Energy USB incentive, federal tax credit
Equipment Used: 156 SolarWorld 320W solar panels, 5 Fronius Symo 10.0W inverters, Unirac U-LA racking


Flathead Electric Taps into the Power of Community Solar

Not everyone lives in a home that’s right for solar. Until recently, Montanans that rent their homes or have shady rooftops had no way to benefit from solar electricity. But now they do…at least, if they’re members of Flathead Electric Cooperative.

Aerial view of Flathead Electric's 100 kilowatt community solar array.

Aerial view of Flathead Electric’s 100 kilowatt community solar array.

Flathead Electric has just completed construction of the first ‘community solar’ project in the state, called the Solar Utility Network, or SUN. Community solar involves a group of people coming together to build one large solar array, as an alternative to each of them putting solar panels on their own rooftops. That means anyone can participate, even if their roof isn’t right for solar. It also lowers costs due to the economies of scale of a larger array.

Flathead Electric provides power to more than 48,000 members in the Flathead Valley and Libby. The SUN project isn’t Flathead Electric’s first foray into renewable energy; they also own Montana’s first and only landfill gas-to-energy facility, and installed Montana’s first ChargePoint electric vehicle charging station. Ross Holter, Energy Services Supervisor at Flathead Electric, explains, “We try to be on the leading edge, and to develop any renewable energy projects in our service area that work for our members.”

The Flathead Electric SUN project being installed by Jordan Solar.

The Flathead Electric SUN project being installed by Jordan Solar.

Jordan Solar of Charlo, Montana won the bid to install the 100 kilowatt solar array in Kalispell. Panels were mounted on racks manufactured in-state by MT Solar. Ross remarks, “Working with [Jordan Solar] was great. They were good at communicating and doing what they said they were going to do. We were right on schedule, start to finish.”

The installation was completed in mid-September 2015, and the solar panels are producing power. Real-time solar production data will soon be available on the Flathead Electric website.

Flathead Electric is selling the panels to its members for $900 each; after a 30 percent federal tax credit, that cost is down to $630. Panel owners will receive a credit on their monthly electric bill based on their portion of the array’s solar production. About 90 of the 356 panels have already sold.

Ross Holter of Flathead Electric accepts the Clean Energy Leadership Award from MREA President Conor Darby at the 2015 Clean Energy Fair

Ross Holter of Flathead Electric accepts the Clean Energy Leadership Award from MREA President Conor Darby at the 2015 Clean Energy Fair

At the Clean Energy Fair on September 19, 2015, Flathead Electric was awarded MREA’s Clean Energy Leadership Award for its commitment to advancing renewable energy in Montana through the SUN project.

Both Ravalli and Missoula Electric Cooperatives are following Flathead’s lead and moving forward with their own community solar projects.

MREA supported a bill during the 2015 state legislative session (SB 182, sponsored by Sen. Mike Phillips of Bozeman) that would have allowed customers of NorthWestern Energy and Montana-Dakota Utilities to participate in community solar projects as well. Unfortunately that bill was defeated in the Senate Energy and Telecommunications Committee.

As for Flathead Electric, Ross reports that “if this goes well, we’ll look at doing a second phase.”

Quick Stats – Flathead Electric Solar Utility Network

Location: Flathead Electric Stillwater Substation, 1840 Whitefish Stage Road, Kalispell
Owner: Flathead Electric Cooperative
Installer: Jordan Solar
Other Contractor Involved: MT Solar (racking), Ronan Irrigation (excavation)
Month Completed: September 2015
Capacity: 100 kilowatts
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $371,000
Incentives Used: $50,000 grant from Bonneville Environmental Foundation
Equipment Used: 356 SolarWorld 285W solar panels, 4 Sunny Boy Tripower Inverters, MT Solar ground-mount racking system, Locus monitoring equipment


Power Optimizers Maximize Solar Production on Bozeman Home

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The new solar array on Gary Weiner’s Bozeman home

Gary Weiner first considered solar for his Bozeman home about a decade ago. He liked the idea of getting his energy from a renewable source, not to mention the idea of increasing his property value with solar. But at the time, he decided it didn’t pencil out. “It was more expensive back then,” he recalls. His decision was partly based on the partial shading of his roof, which he believed would make rooftop solar impossible and require a costlier freestanding solar array.

News about falling solar prices prompted him to take another look earlier this year.

This time, Gary got in touch with Bozeman-based Harvest Solar. According to Kyle MacVean of Harvest Solar, “The site presented a few challenges, as there were two sources of shading. There was hard shade created late in the day by a dormer high on the roof as well as soft shade from the aspen trees in the winter months.” Nevertheless, a rooftop solar array turned out to be feasible.

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The Weiner home from a distance

“Gary is very thorough with his research, and we worked with him to explore the options and choose the best system for the site,” recalls Kyle. Gary ultimately chose power optimizers. This increasingly popular technology optimizes production at each individual solar panel, making it well-suited for maximizing production on partially shaded rooftops.

The power optimizers also allow Gary to track his solar production panel-by-panel from his personal computer. That has led to some surprises.

“I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect,” says Gary, “and it’s interesting to watch the fluctuations on sunny days versus cloudy and rainy days. Perfectly clear and sunny days aren’t necessarily the best for solar production, since there’s more reflective light on days with some haze and clouds.”

Quick Stats – Weiner Home Solar Array

Location: Bozeman
Owner: Gary Weiner
Installer: Harvest Solar
Other Contractor Involved: Tom Pearson Electric
Month Completed: April 2015
Capacity: 7 kW
Incentives Used: Federal and state tax credits
Equipment Used: (25) LG 280 watt solar modules, Solaredge 10kW inverter, (25) Solaredge p300 optimizers


Solar-Powered Beer at the New Butte Brewing Company

The Butte Brewing Company's new building (photo credit: Butte Brewing Company)

The Butte Brewing Company’s new building (photo credit: Butte Brewing Company)

The Butte Brewing Company is a local legend. It opened in uptown Butte 1885, and though its doors shut in 1965, advertisements for its “Butte Special” beer still grace the sides of several historic uptown buildings.

Tony and Teresa Olson, natives of Butte and Anaconda, respectively, bought rights to the Butte Brewing Company name and broke ground on a new home for the brewery in 2012. The Olsons were determined to honor the character of the old brewing company while bringing it into the 21st century, and sustainability was an important component of their plans from the beginning.

20 kilowatt solar array on the roof of the new Butte Brewing Company (photo credit: Butte Brewing Company)

20 kilowatt solar array on the roof of the new Butte Brewing Company (photo credit: Butte Brewing Company)

The new Butte Brewing Company is constructed of insulated concrete forms and heated with an efficient in-floor radiant heating system. As for solar, “We wanted to be able to produce as much energy as we could, on our own,” Tony explains. They were also inspired by their neighbors: three nearby buildings also sport rooftop solar arrays. “It’s an old area of town, but there are lots of new buildings going in,” Tony explains, “and solar seems to be a theme here.”

The Olsons hired Oasis Montana of Stevensville, Montana to install the solar array on the brewery. They were pleased to learn of incentives available through the Rural Energy for America (REAP) program and the NorthWestern Energy USB program. As a result of those programs they were able to install a 20 kilowatt solar array, offsetting more of the brewery’s energy use than otherwise would have been possible.

Growlers (photo credit: Butte Brewing Company)

Growlers (photo credit: Butte Brewing Company)

When it came to designing the solar array, Tony requested that Oasis Montana use REC brand solar panels, due to a local, and personal, connection: REC has a large manufacturing facility in Butte, and Tony works with them frequently through his other business, a safety and health training firm.

The new brewery building is finished, five beers are on tap, and Tony reports that they are waiting on one final permit approval before opening to the public. This summer, for the first time in half a century, Buttians will once again be able to enjoy a cold Butte Special at the Butte Brewing Company. But this time, it’ll be solar-powered.

Quick Stats – Butte Brewing Company Solar Array

Location: Butte Brewing Company, 465 E. Galena Street, Butte
Owner: Tony and Teresa Olson
Installer: Oasis Montana
Month Completed: October 2012
Capacity: 20 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $42,000
Incentives Used: Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), NorthWestern Energy USB grant
Equipment Used: (80) REC 250W solar modules, (2) Fronius IG Plus 10 kW grid-tie inverters


Missoula Couple Inspired at Clean Energy Fair to Go Solar

Solar array on the roof of Eric and Donna Mendelson's home in Missoula

Solar array on the roof of Eric and Donna Mendelson’s home in Missoula (photo credit: Eric Mendelson)

Eric and Donna Mendelson built their home in Missoula in 2008 with energy conservation in mind. The walls are constructed of structural insulated panels (SIPs), and the heating system is a hybrid high-efficiency heat pump and high-efficiency gas furnace. Eric explains that the furnace heats the home when outside temperatures are coldest, and the heat pump takes over when it’s warmer than 28-30 degrees F, maximizing the overall efficiency of the system.

The Mendelsons didn’t include solar in the initial design of their home, but they hoped to add a solar array one day. So they jumped at the chance to learn more about solar at MREA’s Clean Energy Fair in September 2014. At the fair, they attended workshops on solar electricity and financing and incentives, and chatted with several local solar installers. “The fair was very informative,” recalls Eric. “For people like us, who’d had solar panels tucked away in the back of our minds for ‘some day,’ learning that they’re quite available now at a reasonable price really catalyzed us to start moving.”

In the process of installation, with power optimizers visible as small silver boxes

In the process of installation, with power optimizers visible as small silver boxes (photo credit: Eric Mendelson)

After the Clean Energy Fair, the Mendelsons began contacting local solar installers, ultimately choosing to work with Solar Plexus. Jody Aldegarie of Solar Plexus recalls that the Mendelsons’ goal was to install a large enough solar array to offset their electricity use, including the electric heat pump. She proposed a 5 kilowatt array.

The biggest design challenge was where on the roof to install the solar panels. The options were the garage roof, which faces south but is shaded by neighbors’ trees, or the house roof, which is less (though still partially) shaded and faces southwest, less optimal for solar than due south. They chose the house roof. Jody explains, “We decided that the uppermost roof of the house was the most appropriate. It was high enough to be mostly out of the trees, shallow enough that its orientation away from south was mitigated and it had the most open square footage to work with.”

Screen shot: tracking the solar array's production

Screen shot: tracking the solar array’s production

Due in part to their concerns about the partial shading of the house roof, the Mendelsons opted to have power optimizers installed at each panel to increase the system’s energy output. The power optimizers also allow the Mendelsons to track the performance of each individual panel from their home computer.

The installation was completed in April 2015. The Mendelsons enjoy tracking the performance of their solar array on their computer, and Eric reports that in its first few weeks it is producing better than anticipated. “It’s fun to watch,” he says, “and we’re looking forward to being able to graph our solar production throughout the year.”

Quick Stats – Mendelson Solar Array

Location: Missoula
Owner: Eric and Donna Mendelson
Installer: Solar Plexus
Month Completed: April 2015
Capacity: 5 kW
Total Project Cost: $13,840 (before incentives), $7,288 (after incentives)
Incentives Used: $2,000 NorthWestern Energy USB incentive, federal and state tax credits


Solar is Natural Fit for Remote Prairie Reserve

Solar array at Grouse Camp on the American Prairie Reserve

Solar array at Grouse Camp on the American Prairie Reserve

Grouse Camp is a remote, off-grid collection of yurts in northeastern Montana that belongs to the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a nonprofit organization that is working to build the largest wildlife reserve in the lower 48 states.  School groups come to Grouse Camp to learn about the prairie and its wildlife, and volunteers use it as a base to remove fences and build trails on the reserve.  Public campgrounds are nearby.

An hour south of Malta, Grouse Camp is far from the nearest power lines.  Before last summer, a gasoline-powered generator provided power to the largest of the six yurts, which includes a kitchen, radio communication system, and gathering space.  The power was essential, but the generator’s noise and the need to buy and haul in gasoline were hassles for APR.  Grouse Camp is a very sunny spot, and in the summer of 2014 APR decided to take advantage of that solar resource by replacing the noisy generator with a clean and silent 530 watt solar array.

The main difference between a remote, off-grid solar array like the one at Grouse Camp and a solar array connected to the electric grid is that off-grid solar requires batteries to store the solar energy so it can be used when the sun is not shining.  By contrast, the grid itself is used as backup for a grid-tied solar array, so batteries aren’t needed.

Inside the yurt

Inside the yurt

Bozeman- and Eureka-based solar company Thirsty Lake Solar installed the solar array at Grouse Camp.  Jeff Wongstrom, owner of Thirsty Lake Solar, reports that because Grouse Camp is so remote, he specified 12 volt batteries rather than the 24 volt batteries that would have been the norm for a system of this size.  This means that if a battery dies, a truck battery can be used to keep the power on before a replacement battery arrives.  It also means that the 12 volt radio communication system at the site can be hooked directly to the battery.

The Grouse Camp solar array was not APR’s first venture into solar.  The reserve includes 43 miles of solar-powered electric fences that keep bison from venturing off the reserve and onto private land.  Damien Austin, APR Reserve Supervisor, explains that choosing solar-powered fences was a simple cost calculation: “In an area that rural, it was much more cost-effective than running power out there.”

The prairie reserve’s remote location and focus on conservation make solar a natural choice, and APR has plans to install more.  Damien says, “This summer, we’re installing two or three solar water pumping stations to provide occasional, in-case-of-drought water for our herd of bison, which will number around 600 after calving season ends next month.”

Quick Stats – Grouse Camp Solar Array

Location: Grouse Camp, American Prairie Reserve south of Malta
Owner: American Prairie Reserve
Installer: Thirsty Lake Solar
Month Completed: July 2014
Capacity: 530 W
Equipment Used: (2) Suniva OPT 265 Watt solar modules, Outback VFX 2812 inverter, (2) MK Deka Gel 8G31 12V batteries


New Solar Array Lights Up Capital High School

Tom Pederson (left) and Jack Isbell in front of Capital High School's new solar array

Tom Pederson (left) and Jack Isbell in front of Capital High School’s new solar array

Ever since Tom Pedersen, a science teacher at Capital High School, had solar panels installed on his home in 2010, he’s been thinking about how great it would be to put solar on the school. “I believe in teaching stewardship to my students,” says Tom, and “we have a great flat roof on the gym that [I realized] could be a power plant for the school.”

When the school gym was slated for a new roof in 2014, the timing was right.

Tom worked with Jack Isbell, owner of Solar Montana in Helena, to secure funding from NorthWestern Energy’s Universal Systems Benefit program to cover the cost of the panels and installation. The school contributed thousands of dollars worth of engineering and structural work to make the project happen.

Jack explains that the fact that the gym was being re-roofed was big benefit. By allowing the solar panels to be installed with optimal orientation and spacing, it increased the ultimate energy production of the system.

Solar panels atop the Capital High School gym

Solar panels atop the Capital High School gym

The solar array was installed by Solar Montana with subcontractors Eagle Electric and Diamond Construction, and it began providing solar energy to Capital High in January 2015. The array is equipped with a full weather station, collecting data that students and the public can access in real time via a public web page developed by Bill Kaiser, technology teacher at the school. A kiosk will soon be added in the school’s main lobby to display real-time data from the system, and the data will be used in Capital High science and math classrooms.

Tom encourages other schools to look into solar: “I’d love to see every school possible have something like this.” He points out that in addition to the educational benefits for students, “it would be great for taxpayers to see how it reduces the school’s electric bills.”

Quick Stats – Capital High School Solar Array

Location: Capital High School, 100 Valley Drive, Helena
Owner: Helena Public Schools
Installer: Solar Montana
Other Contractors Involved: Eagle Electric, Diamond Construction
Month Completed: January 2015
Capacity: 10.2 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $38,200 (plus engineering and structural work)
Equipment Used: (40) REC Solar 255-Watt polycrystalline solar modules, Fronius IG Plus 10 kW inverter, SnapNrack mounting system


Bozeman Couple Saves on Propane with Solar Water Heating

Karen and Jan Foust of Bozeman have always had an interest in solar energy. Their water heater runs off propane, and the thought of using free energy from the sun to reduce their propane use always appealed to them.

Solar Hot Water Collector on the roof of the Foust home in Bozeman

Solar Hot Water Collector on the roof of the Foust home in Bozeman

Last year, the Fousts got in touch with Todd Hoitsma, owner of Liquid Solar Systems of Bozeman. After considering their needs, Todd recommended a 35,000 BTU solar hot water collector coupled with a 60 gallon solar storage tank. This system would provide about 10,000 gallons of hot water per year, which would be expected to meet about 70% of the Fousts’ annual hot water needs.

The total cost of the system was $5,900, but Todd explained that the state Alternative Energy Tax Credit as well as a federal tax credit would take a significant chunk out of that price. Karen says, “We don’t make a lot of money, and [the tax credits] was one of the things that sold us.”

The installation was completed in March 2014, and a year later, the Fousts are pleased with their solar water heating system. Karen enjoys checking the temperature of the solar-heated water – on a recent chilly February morning, the sensors were reporting a temperature of 115 degrees in the solar storage tank. As Karen puts it, “Solar is a gift from God. As much as we can use it, it’s free!”

Quick Stats – Foust Solar Water Heating System

Location: Bozeman, Montana
Owner: Karen and Jan Foust
Installer: Liquid Solar Systems
Month Completed: March 2014
Capacity: 35,000 BTU peak output
Equipment Used: Sun Earth solar hot water panels, 60 gallon solar tank
Total Project Cost: $5,900
Financing Tools Used: Federal and State of Montana tax credits


Three Forks Pole Mounted Solar Array Supports Montana Manufacturing

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Pole-mounted solar array in Three Forks

When Leandra Hill of Three Forks, Montana, decided to install a solar energy system on her property – a former dairy farm –  she discovered that her rooftop was just not viable for solar.  To maximize solar output, a south-facing roof aspect is important, but all of her south-facing roof space was shaded by large trees.  Luckily, she learned, there was an alternative: a pole-mounted solar array.

Ms. Hill’s recently-completed 15 kilowatt pole-mounted solar array is expected to provide 100% of the annual electricity use of the two houses and shop building on the property.  And the system doesn’t just produce local, Montana-made solar energy, but it also supported Montana manufacturing.  The array was installed by Bozeman-based business Onsite Energy, using an innovative pole mount technology designed and manufactured by MT Solar of Charlo, Montana.  And while no solar panels are manufactured in Montana, the silicon in the REC Solar panels used in the project may have been manufactured at the REC plant just down the road in Butte. Other local businesses involved in the installation included Bozeman Electric, LLC, which performed the electrical wiring, and Bill Monnett Construction, Inc., which performed the site excavation.

Conor Darby, solar installer and co-owner of Onsite Energy, explains that MT Solar’s pole-mount technology allows installers to assemble the pole mount and solar panels at waist level and then hoist them to top upon completion.  This eliminates the need for cranes or other heavy equipment, reducing the time and cost of the installation.  Conor says, “Building the array at ground level, and then easily hoisting it into place, we felt that we had entered a whole new realm after installing racks and panels on ladders for the last decade.”

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Rear view of pole mount

According to Janelle Stauff of MT Solar, the company has been manufacturing pole mounts for several years.  Until recently they were only selling their products locally, but within the past year they have begun selling to solar installers all over the country.  They currently employ 5 full time and 5 part time employees in Western Montana, and plan to expand to meet the growing demand for their products.

Project owner Leandra Hill is a longtime supporter of solar energy who was glad to be able to install her own system with the help of a loan from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program.  The program makes loans of up to $40,000 at a low interest rate (currently 3.25%) for the installation of alternative energy systems including solar, wind, micro-hydropower, biomass, and ground-source heat pumps.

Quick Stats – Three Forks Pole Mount Solar Array

Location: Three Forks, Montana
Owner: Leandra Hill
Installer: Onsite Energy
Month Completed: January 2015
Capacity: 15.3 kW
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $60,000
Equipment Used: (60) REC Solar 255-Watt polycrystalline solar modules, (2) Fronius IG Plus 7.5 kW inverters, (1) MT Solar Top-60 multi-pole mount rack


Solar “Just Made Sense” for Bitter Root Brewery in Hamilton

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Bitter Root Brewery solar array

According to Jason Goeltz, general manager of Bitter Root Brewery in Hamilton, Montana, the decision to install a 10 kilowatt solar array on the roof last spring was a natural reflection of the brewery’s commitment to sustainability – and a prudent financial move as well.

“Sustainability is a significant driving motivator for many of our business decisions,” explains Goeltz. With sustainability in mind, the brewery has recently cut back on packaging of its 22 ounce glass bottles and is transitioning to aluminum cans. They will soon be installing an electric vehicle charging station onsite. Given the abundance of sunshine in the Bitterroot Valley, the solar array “just made sense,” says Goeltz.

The economics of solar didn’t hurt, either. The solar array helps to shield the brewery from rising energy costs, and with the recent drop in solar panel prices and the available incentives, the brewery is expecting its solar array to be paid off by energy bill savings within 10 years. The array will last 30-40 years, so after it’s paid off the brewery looks forward to enjoying free solar electricity for 20+ years.

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Installation in progress, with micro-inverters visible

Bitter Root Brewery’s solar array was installed by local business SBS Solar. Dan Brandborg,General Manager of SBS Solar, reports that one of the challenges he faced when designing the system was the fact that the brewery is adjacent to a cell phone tower and a baseball park with a large ball net, both of which shade portions of the roof at various times of day. For that reason, Brandborg decided to use micro-inverters.

The inverter is a key part of any grid-connected solar array; it converts the direct current (DC) produced by the solar panels to alternating current (AC) which can be used in the building and fed onto the grid. Most solar arrays are installed with a single, central inverter. In these systems, when part of the array is shaded, the performance of the entire system is affected. Micro-inverters are smaller inverters built into each individual solar panel. When a solar array with micro-inverters is shaded, only the performance of the shaded panels is affected – a big advantage for partially shaded rooftops like Bitter Root Brewery’s.

Goeltz explains that the project also features an educational component: Bitter Root Brewery customers can enjoy a beer while checking out the array’s real-time solar production from a TV monitor mounted above the bar.

Quick Stats – Bitter Root Brewery Solar PV Array

Location: 101 Marcus Street, Hamilton MT
Owner: Bitter Root Brewery
Installer: SBS Solar
Month Completed: May 2014
Capacity: 10.2 kilowatts
Total Pre-Incentive Project Cost: $32,681
Equipment Used: 40 Canadian 255 Watt Modules; Enphase M250 microinverters; Sunmodo flush-mount racking


Solar-Squared for Low-Income Housing Complex in Havre

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Solar photovoltaic panels at Hill View Apartments

Residents of the low-income Hill View Apartments in Havre, Montana will soon be enjoying double the benefits of solar energy: solar photovoltaic panels and solar thermal collectors will work side-by-side to produce electricity and hot water for the 52-unit complex. The new solar arrays are part of a complete renovation of the complex with an eye toward energy efficiency, including added insulation and new windows and boilers. The project also features construction of a new, energy-efficient community building, which includes meeting rooms, laundry facilities, and a Head Start school and playground.

The project was developed by MT Preservation HV LLLP, a partnership which includes HomeWORD, a nonprofit developer of affordable and sustainable housing headquartered in Missoula, and GMD Development of Seattle. Hill View is one of five low-income housing complexes around the state that are being renovated by the partnership.

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Solar water heating panels at Hill View Apartments

Julie Stiteler, Housing Project Manager with HomeWORD, explains that Hill View residents will benefit in numerous ways from the project. The energy efficiency upgrades make the apartments more comfortable year-round: cooler in summer and warmer in winter. While the property owner pays utility bills for the complex, the fact that those bills are lower due to the efficiency upgrades and solar arrays means that more money is available month-to-month to keep the property well-maintained for residents.

The 35 kilowatt solar electric array was installed by Sundance Solar Systems of Red Lodge, and the 750,000 Btu solar hot water system was installed by Liquid Solar Systems of Bozeman.

The project is expected to be completed in December 2014.

Quick Stats – Hill View Apartments Solar Array

Location: Hill View Apartments, 1280 10th Street W, Havre MT
Owner: MT Preservation HV LLLP
Installers: Sundance Solar Systems (solar PV), Liquid Solar Systems (solar hot water)
Capacity: 34.6 kilowatts solar PV and 750 kBtu solar hot water
Total Pre-Incentive Cost: $140,000 for solar PV and $90,000 for solar hot water
Solar PV Equipment Used: 132 LG Electronics 265 Watt Modules; 4 Fronius IG Plus 6000 W inverters and 1 Fronius IG Plus 10000 W inverter; Unirac racking 6 inch standoffs
Solar Hot Water Equipment Used: SunEarth flat plate solar collectors; stainless storage tanks; one 95% efficient HTP water heater with solar input coil


Emerson Center for Arts and Culture Cuts Power Bills with New Solar Array

Emerson Center front

Emerson Center for Arts and Culture

The Emerson Center for Arts and Culture, a nonprofit community arts center housed in a 96-year-old former elementary school in Bozeman, now boasts a very modern element on its roof: a 30 kilowatt solar array, the largest in the Bozeman city limits. The solar array is net metered, meaning that when it produces more clean energy than the building needs, the excess flows onto the electric grid and the Emerson Center receives a credit on its power bill. Those bill savings are fed directly back into the Emerson Center’s programs: it houses art galleries, event spaces, and a large theater, and hosts scores of classes, workshops, events and performances each year.

Emerson Center Rooftop

Emerson Center Rooftop

The Emerson Center’s new solar array was funded by longtime Emerson Center supporter and renewable energy advocate Tim Crawford. Bozeman solar company Onsite Energy designed and installed the system. Many other local contractors took part in the project, including structural engineers, electrical engineers, roofers, and electricians.

Orion Thornton, co-owner of Onsite Energy, explains that the greatest challenge from an installer’s point of view stemmed from the building’s age. “It’s almost a 100 year old building. It’s not that it was structurally unsound, but to meet snow loading requirements we had to reinforce the trusses and keep the system to 2.5 pounds per square foot. That dictated the racking and solar modules that we used.” Onsite Energy chose a shared racking system for the project, which involves significantly fewer rails than a typical racking system, reducing both the system’s weight and the number of roof penetrations required.

Quick Stats – Emerson Center Solar Array

Location: Emerson Center for Arts and Culture, 111 South Grand Avenue, Bozeman
Owner: Emerson Center for Arts and Culture
Installer: Onsite Energy
Generating Capacity: 30.25 kilowatts
Total Pre-Incentive Cost: $100,000
Equipment Used: 110 LG Electronics 275 Watt Modules; Two Solectria 14kW-TL Inverters; Unirac SunFrame Racking with Quickmount PV Stand-Offs


Billings Public Library solar array: “A gamble with no losing side”

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Billings Public Library

The brand-new Billings Public Library, which opened in January 2014, features on its roof a 30 kilowatt solar photovoltaic array installed by MREA member business Bozeman Green Build. The solar array is net metered, meaning that when the solar panels produce more electricity than is needed in the building at any given moment, the excess power flows out onto the grid and the city receives a credit on its power bill for the library. The array was funded in part by a Universal Systems Benefit grant from NorthWestern Energy.

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Solar array on the library’s roof

The solar array was incorporated into the new library building with the intent of achieving LEED Gold certification. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely used green building certification program worldwide. The solar array is just one of many sustainable elements incorporated into the new library building. Others include waterless urinals, reduced use of paint and carpeting, water-wise landscaping, and emphasis on task lighting rather than ceiling lights. The building is currently undergoing LEED review, and final certification is expected this summer.

The solar array will offset about 5% of the building’s power use, reducing the city’s power bill for the library over the long term. John Palm, owner of Bozeman Green Build, points out that ultimate dollar savings are hard to predict, since they will depend on how much the price of conventional energy rises in the coming decades. As he puts it, “you buy solar today and it’s sort of a gamble, but it’s a gamble with no losing side.”

Quick Stats – Billings Public Library Solar Array

Location: Billings Public Library, 510 North Broadway, Billings MT
Owner: City of Billings
Installer: Bozeman Green Build
Generating Capacity: 30 kilowatts
Total Pre-Incentive Cost: $97,300
USB Grant Amount: $50,000
Equipment Used: 120 Trina 250 Watt modules; Three Fronius IG Plus10.0 inverters; Solarmount racking with heavy duty rails and Quick Mount standoffs; SolarBOS disconnecting combiners


Monitoring Solar Production Right from Your Phone

Renewable energy was on Nancy Larson’s radar before she found out about the Solarize Missoula program. “We had looked into geothermal, but it didn’t make sense at the time.” Last year, she saw an ad in a local paper for the Solarize Missoula program and decided to attend to get more information. Nancy admitted that without an introduction like the one she got at the meeting, she might not have moved forward on her own.

Rooftop solar PV

Solar array at the Larson residence

Now, the Larsons have a 3.12 kW system installed on their roof. They worked with Remote Power Systems, who installed Fronius inverters which connect to a mobile phone app, allowing the owner to monitor real-time production from anywhere. Nancy has had fun this past summer watching the energy production on sunny Montana days. Nancy mentions that the system has reduced their energy bills by half since it was installed last February.

When asked about her motivation for installing the system, Nancy’s response was that it just makes sense. “Why wouldn’t you?”, she notes. Others have also taken note. “A few of us were out in the street chatting the other day, and one of my neighbors started asking me all sorts of questions about the solar panels. I think I may have spurred some interest!”

Quick Stats – Larson Solar PV System

Location: Missoula, Montana
Owner: Nancy Larson
Installer: Remote Power Systems
Month Completed: February 2016
Capacity: 3.12 kW
Equipment Used: Fronius Inverters w/ roof mounted 265-watt Solar World panels
Total Pre-incentive Project Cost: $9,672
Financing Tools UsedFederal and State of Montana tax credits.


Steep Roof Means Great Winter Production

Small nuances can make all of the difference when trying to maximize production from your solar panels. With winter sun angles providing high production out of a PV array, a well-angled, south facing roof can make a difference when dealing with snowstorms.

“In short, the roof is steep”, says Mike Sudik, owner of Big Sky Solar who installed the 2.6kW rooftop array on the Sembach-Tralongo Residence in December of 2016. The snow slides right off.

2.6kW array on the steep roof of the Sembach-Tralongo Residence

“This is our first season with the system, but we’ve noticed it stays clear most of the time,” says Mark Sembach.

Mark, who travels often for work, mentioned having a low-maintenance system like this is ideal for him. While he’s gone, the panels simply keep producing energy. “We monitor production about once per week at this point,” says Mark. The Enphase Inverters that Big Sky Solar installed allow the system owner and the installer to monitor each individual panel’s production online and via smart phones.

Screen shot of the online panel monitoring software, accessible online and on smart phones

“This allows us to be on high-alert if one of the panels isn’t working properly,” says Sudik. He is able to pro-actively reach out to his customers to address performance issues and keep the panels in good working order.

Mark mentioned several reason for installing the array, including environmental benefits. Working in environmental remediation, he is very aware of his own environmental impacts. The panels allow him to keep his person impacts more under control. He’s also excited about the increased property value that the array will provide and, of course, the lower monthly energy bills.

Quick Stats – Sembach-Tralongo Solar PV System

Location: Missoula, MT
Owner: Mark Sembach and Joe Tralongo
Installer: Big Sky Solar
Month Completed: December 2016
Capacity: 2.6 kW
Equipment Used: 10 x 260kW panels w/ Enphase Inverters
Total Pre-incentive Project Cost: $8,580
Financing Tools Used: In addition to the Federal and State incentives, the system was partially financed through the Missoula Federal Credit Union.


34.2kW solar array is largest on a Catholic Grade School in Montana

Dan Kenworthy (center), son Colter (right) and employee Dan Dettman (left) next to the St. Jude array

Rev. Daniel J. Wathen and Kathryn Tilleman at the St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic School in Havre had been eyeing a solar array for the past four years. “We had it on our mind, but the finances weren’t working out for us,” says Rev. Wathen. They had tried working with a number of different groups, but found many don’t fund projects like these or didn’t have funding available. It wasn’t until Rev. Wathen was at a steam boiler maintenance training that he overheard a conversation about solar installations. That’s when he received a recommendation for NorthWestern Energy’s Universal Systems Benefits (USB) grants program.

“NorthWestern was excellent to work with. They walked us through the whole process,” says Tilleman who is the school’s Development Director and worked on the grants for the project.

Some of the motivation for the project was certainly practical, helping the school save important funds. In addition to the St. Jude Thaddeus school, the meter that the array is connected to also serves the old high school building (Central Building). The lower level of the building houses the Havre’s Helping Haven, which distributes used clothes and gently used household goods to the needy. The St. Jude school uses the gym and a youth dance group rents the main floor of the Central Building.

The project also has an educational focus. St. Jude installed a kiosk at the main entrance to the school that allows students, parents, and visitors to monitor the array’s output. The kiosk features a display screen with live production information, which Tilleman says has been used to educate students. “We’re mostly working with the junior high teachers right now to begin discussing education around the array,” says Tilleman. “But all the students are attentive. They can see the array up there and they’re all asking questions, which is great!”

To date, the array is the largest on a Catholic grade school in Montana. The array itself features 120 panels, with a total installed capacity of 34.2kW. Rev. Wathen says the array could be expanded to one day reach 41kW.

Quick Stats – St. Jude Thaddeus School

Location: Havre, MT
Owner: St. Jude Thaddeus Catholic School
Installer: Kenworthy Electric
Month Completed: September 2016
Capacity: 34.2 kW
Equipment Used: 120-Solar World Sun Module Plus 285-watt; 4-ABB UNO-8.6 KW inverters, Uni-Rack Ballasted Roof Mount; 360-4″x 8″x 16″ Kanta concrete block (made in Three Forks Montana)
Total Pre-incentive Project Cost: $103,000
Financing Tools Used: NorthWestern Energy USB Grant ($75,000) plus a Private Grant ($20,000)


First LEED Platinum building in Montana now using 100% solar

The “Home on the Range” building was renovated in 2003 to become Montana’s first LEED Platinum certified building, and is home to organizations that are committed to energy conservation (Northern Plains Resource Council, Western Organization of Resource Councils, and Western Native Voice). During the renovation, Sundance Solar Systems installed a 10kW solar electric system that has been able to offset 1/3 of the building’s energy use over the last ten years. Northern Plains Resource Council decided take the next step to offset 100% of the building’s energy use by pursuing additional solar project for the property.

25kW array integrated into the carport

“The 10th anniversary of the commissioning of the building was coming up, and we wanted to do something big to celebrate,” says Kate French, Board Chair of Northern Plains Resource Council. “This building was something that we felt could showcase sustainable building techniques, and would be good for the community.”

Northern Plains decided the next step they would take with the grounds would be to add enough solar to power the entire building. They began planning a fundraiser to fund the project, and after a year’s worth of work they had their new array. “It was incredible. So many people stepped up to help, including Tim Crawford who was one of our largest donors.”

The challenge was where to put the new system. The grounds around the building include important features like xeriscape areas and native plants and gardens, which they didn’t want to disturb. “The issue was that the original 10kW array took up all the available space on the roof, so we had to come up with other options,” says Orion Thornton of OnSite Energy, the solar business responsible for the addition.

Home on the Range building, with carport array in background

Ultimately, with input from NPRC and the original architect, OnSite Energy designed a custom cantilevered carport that works within the limited amount of space to meet NPRC’s goals of energy production while also blending well with the property lay out. In addition to hosting the new 25kW array, the carport also provides shade during the summer and protection from snow during the winter.

“It’s just so clean,” says French. “We were blown away at how meticulous the design team was in making it aesthetically pleasing. It’s the first thing people see when they come onto the property, so it really sets the tone for who you’re going to be talking to and what they care about.”

French says they rarely turn the lights on, and over the past 10 years have saved more than $80,000 in gas and electric energy use.

Quick Stats – Home on the Range Building

Location: Billings, MT
Owner: Northern Plains Resource Council in conjunction with Tim Crawford of Pheasant Farms
Month completed: June, 2016
Installer: OnSite Energy, Inc.
Other contractors involved: Ace Electric
Equipment used: 75 Suniva 330 Watt Solar Panels, 4 SMA 5.0 US Inverters
Capacity: 24.75 kW
Pre-incentive project cost: $110,000
Financing tools used (grants, loans, tax credits): Private donations


Darby Community Public Library to generate 88% of needs from solar PV

The building that now houses the Darby Community Public Library opened its doors in September of 2004.  The 5,000 square-foot structure is a national demonstration building, showcasing a new type of construction featuring small diameter roundwood for beams and trusses. Described as the “Sistine Chapel of Small Diameter Roundwood,” the Darby Library is an inspiring example of what partners can do when they put their minds together.  It was a true community effort, both in concept and practice. It was constructed using local contractors and suppliers incorporating as many locally made supplies as possible.  The furnishings were manufactured by local craftsmen and made from area timber products.

Darby Public Library with solar array on roof

Energy efficiency played a large role in the design and construction of the Darby library. It boasts a ground-source heat pump system, along with good insulation and energy efficient windows, that all keeps the space comfortable. “The intent was to include solar PV during construction, but at that time the funds weren’t available,” says Veryl Kosteczko, a former Library Board Member. However, after seeing a local solar installation in Hamilton, Kosteczko became reinvested in trying to install solar the library.

Solar installers put panels into place

The Board contacted Dan Brandborg with SBS Solar and together they designed a system that will cover 88% of the Library’s annual electricity needs. The system was funded using a grant from the Universal System Benefits program along with private donations, including time donated by the engineers, architects, and installers involved with the project. Library Director Wendy Campbell says the savings allow the library to focus on more efficiently using tax-payer dollars. “We outlined the costs of the installation versus the annual savings, and it was an easy decision for the Board.”

Today, the library continues to grow in community use. In addition to its book collections, it provides eleven desktop computers and five laptops for public use, a free meeting room for group use, free Wifi. Serving a population of 4,300 in a 1,376 square mile area, the library is the center for community activities. In addition, it’s location right on Highway 93 makes it a great visual. “We hope it will inspire others to do the same,” says Kosteczko.

The system includes sixty-two 325-Watt panels, totaling more than 20kW of installed capacity. In staying in line with the educational purpose of the library, by using the SolarEdge Grid tie Inverter, Model SE-10,000-US the system production can be monitored from anywhere.

See more via NBC Montana.

Quick Stats – Darby Community Public Library

Location: Darby, MT
Owner: Darby Community Public Library
Month completed: February, 2017
Installer: SBS Solar
Other contractors involved: Baudette Engineering, DJ’s Electric
Equipment used: 62 SolarWorld Sunmodule SW325 XL Mono Crystalline, 325 watt panels; 2 SolarEdge Grid tie Inverter, Model SE-10,000-US, 10,000 watt continuous output.
Capacity: 20.15 kW
Pre-incentive project cost: $58,000
Financing tools used (grants, loans, tax credits): USB grant, private donations

 

More renewable energy system profiles are available on the Alternative Energy Resources Organization’s Repower MT site.