Flathead Electric Taps into the Power of Community Solar

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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.

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

  • Capacity (kW): 100
  • Owner: Flathead Electric Cooperative
  • Location: 1840 Whitefish Stage Road, Kalispell, MT
  • Incentives: $50,000 grant from Bonneville Environmental Foundation
  • Installer: Jordan Solar, MT Solar (racking), Ronan Irrigation (excavation)
  • Equipment Used: 356 SolarWorld 285W solar panels, 4 Sunny Boy Tripower Inverters, MT Solar ground-mount racking system, Locus monitoring equipment