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Montana Rural Solar Access Project

Rooftop solar photo NREL

The goal of the Montana Rural Solar Access Project (MRSAP) is to increase access to, and development of, distributed solar in rural and low-to-moderate income communities across Montana. The core objective is to identify opportunities and barriers to the development of distributed energy resources (DER) – specifically solar energy – in low-to-moderate income (LMI) populations in rural Montana communities; and to research, identify, and develop solutions to increase adoption and support the development of solar markets.

According to the 2010 census, over 99% percent of Montana land area was characterized as rural, with over 44% of state residents living in rural areas. A substantial portion of the state’s solar resources can be accessed by enabling rural residents to harness these resources in their communities. Rural communities in Montana also tend to have a lower median household income relative to more urban portions of the state and can thus benefit substantially from the financial savings of distributed generation.

Phase One – Understanding How to Enable Access to Solar Resources

In the first phase of this project, MREA examined how policy, regulation, financial mechanisms, and community engagement programs can enable access to, and development of, solar energy resources. The research conducted in Phase One focused on characterizing the common challenges that rural and LMI communities face to accessing and developing distributed solar, drawing from research across the country, research done here in Montana, and from the experiences and expertise of key stakeholders working with rural and LMI communities and in the renewable energy sector here in Montana. From this research, MREA identified numerous strategies for their potential to address these challenges. The second phase of this project moves into deeper community engagement to learn from Montanan’s perspectives on the opportunities and challenges to accessing and developing distributed solar in their communities.

Throughout Phase One, MREA analyzed 23 diverse strategies regarding policy, regulation, financial mechanisms, and community engagement programs, to identify those that have been the most impactful in other contexts and those that may be most impactful in our unique context of Montana. From this analysis, we have identified several strategies as potentially impactful in increasing access to, and development of, distributed solar in our rural and LMI communities.

  • Virtual and Aggregate Net Metering Legislation
  • Community Purchase Programs (CPPs) / Solarize
  • Green Tax Incentives
  • Green Grants and Rebates
  • On-bill Financing/Recovery
  • Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE)
  • Special Improvement Districts (SIDs) / Rural Improvement Districts (RIDs)

You can read more about these strategies, and the others that MREA identified, in the Phase One Summary Report.

Phase Two – Learning from Montanans through Community Engagement

The second phase of this project involved an in-depth community engagement process that aimed to understand Montanans’ interests, concerns, and priorities regarding distributed solar development. To do this, we held community meetings across the state to address concerns and questions and to learn directly from Montanans about the challenges and opportunities for distributed solar development in our rural and LMI communities. We also distributed short, end-of-meeting surveys to capture attendees perspectives as well as conducted interviews with key community members from local government, universities, economic development organizations, extensions offices, and more. In our Phase Two Report, we share what we have learned and begin discussing what actions we can take going forward to expand on opportunities and overcome challenges.

MREA engaged with 10 communities in 2021: Fort Benton, Havre, White Sulphur Springs, Red Lodge, Dillon, Hamilton, Forsyth, Glasgow, Columbia Falls, and Shelby.

You can read more about our community engagement efforts, and what we have learned, in our Phase Two Report

Phase Three – Bringing What We Learned into Action

  • Solar Projects: Through our community engagement work in Phase Two, we met businesses and organizations across the state that were interested in moving forward with installing solar systems. We are now supporting these groups to ensure they have the information and resources they need to proceed. If you are interested in moving forward with a solar project in your community, feel free to contact us - we are happy to talk through your options and provide all the help we can.
  • Enhancing Resources for Communities: Community members form across the state helped us understand what aspects of solar are of most interest to them, and what key questions they have about the technology and the installation process. We worked those insights into the content of our website, our educational handouts, and our plans for sharing information throughout the state.
  • Industry Development: While we have dozens of high-quality solar professionals in our state, our state is also large. There are many communities for whom the nearest installer is over an hour away, and we hear ample interest from communities across the state in developing a local solar workforce. We plan to build on our history of supporting a strong renewable energy industry by continuing to expand access to professional development opportunities across the state. Stay tuned for more information on available programs and trainings!
  • Energy Policy: Communities across the state voiced their interest in additional incentives to support Montanans in transitioning to the independence of local clean energy. As we prepare for the next legislative session in 2023, we intend to continue to champion the priorities and interests of Montanans and our local renewable energy industry.

Additional Resources

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