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Community Scale

Community scale renewable energy projects can take many forms. Solar projects have been the most common, though they can use a variety of renewable energy technologies. We share a few examples of community scale solar projects in Montana to demonstrate the possibilities.

When most people hear "community solar" they think of a shared solar array (described more below). In fact, community-scale renewable energy projects can take a diversity of forms. Although solar is the most common, these types of projects can use any technology. Three of the most common types of community-scale projects are described below.

For more information on community scale solar in Montana, explore the following resources:

These resources and more are available on the Department of Environmental Quality's website under the "Solar Resources" tab.

Shared Solar or "Solar Gardens"

When you hear someone refer to "community solar", this is most often what they are referring to. These are also called "solar gardens" or are described as "virtual net metering" installations. Shared solar is typically a large, single installation (10's or 100's of kilowatts in size) on a single site. The installation is typically owned by a single entity, and most often that entity is an energy provider like a utility or rural electric cooperative. The installation produces energy and sends it directly into the utility's grid. Families, businesses, schools, and any other utility customer can then "subscribe" to a portion of the installation. In doing so, they are either leasing or purchasing any number of number of panels from the total available, usually matching up their purchase with their total energy needs. In the photo below, we see an example of a family, library, and business all purchasing different numbers of panels to meet their energy reduction goals. Over the course of their ownership contract for those panels (which is typically 20-25 years) the customer gets credits on their energy bill for the production from their panels. It's as if the panels were installed on their own roof!

shared solar
Shared solar example showing three different customers purchasing various numbers of panels to meet their energy needs (Photo credit: Southern Environmental Law Center)

Shared solar has numerous benefits. By installing a single, larger array the owner can use economies of scale to get better pricing, which can mean lower up-front costs for a customer to purchase one or multiple panels. Shared solar also provides access to the benefits of solar for customers who are unable to install solar on their own home for various reasons (for example: renters, a shaded roof, a poor roof angle, or weak roof support).

In Montana, investor owned utilities are restricted from doing shared solar. Rural electric cooperatives, who are regulated differently, are not. Many co-ops in Montana have installed community solar projects, including:

Flathead Electric Co-op – 101 kW (2015)
Missoula Electric Co-op Phase I – 50 kW (2015)
Ravalli Electric Co-op – 50 kW (2016)
Missoula Electric Co-Op Phase II – 50 kW (2016)
Fergus Electric Co-Op – 100 kW (2017) *considering a Phase 2
Tongue River Electric Co-Op (planning stages)

Renewable energy on community buildings

Darby public library solar array
Darby Public Library Solar (Photo credit: SBS Solar)

Community buildings are a great example of community-scale renewable energy projects. These projects are specifically installed for a community building like a library, school, or city or state office building. One of the greatest benefits of these projects is that the energy savings generated are eventually passed on to the community members through lower operating costs that lower taxes and help places like libraries and schools have more funding for their programs and staff.

Another great benefit is the educational opportunity for students and the general public. Many installations at community buildings include some form of monitoring system that is publicly available (online or via a monitor on-site) that displays energy production information from the system. The presence of this monitor or kiosk helps raise awareness about the installation, and also provides an opportunity to understand the technology and learn more about it.

In Montana, most community building installations have been rooftop solar. However, there have also been some solar thermal. There have been very few small wind installations for community buildings to date. Below are just a few examples of solar installations on community buildings around the state:

Lewis and Clark Public Library, Helena
Darby Public Library, Darby
Billings Public Library, Billings
Fire Station #4, Missoula – solar thermal
St. Jude Thaddeus School, Havre
Capital High School, Helena
Park Place parking garage, Missoula

Group Assessment and Purchase Programs (e.g. "Solarize" programs)

Group purchase programs, most commonly referred to as "Solarize" programs, are a great way to build community support around renewable energy. These programs are typically organized by a single entity, be it an individual, organization, or group of individuals. A larger group of individuals then participate in the program. The key elements of a solarize program are: 1) the local installer(s) participating in the program is/are vetted, 2) participants can benefit from economies of scale by ensuring the installer multiple projects at one time,  and 3) participants benefit from shared knowledge and support. Solarize programs can help address many of the barriers that individuals commonly experience when exploring options to "go solar." These include:

Complexity. The steps customers need to take to "go solar" can be unclear for those unfamiliar with the process. Solarize programs address this by walking customers through each step of the process, usually through educational presentations and community meetings.

Costs. Customers can often be concerned that they are not getting a good price for an installation. Solarize programs commonly involve a program price or range of prices, and can usually ensure a good price through economies of scale. You may not be guaranteed the lowest price, but participants are usually assured they are getting a good price.

Contractor. Like any contractor, customers want a solar professional they can trust to do good work. The installer or installers participating in the solarize program are usually vetted by the program organizers.

Motivation. It can be hard sometimes to take the first step for a new project. Solarize programs create a group effort around "going solar" that can be encouraging and welcoming. This can make it easier for folks who have been on the fence to make their first moves.

MREA partnered with several local organizations to host a Solarize Missoula program in the winter of 2015-2016. Over 300 local residents attended the two educational workshops, and approximately 45 new systems were installed as a result of the program. Since then, Solarize programs have been successful in communities across Montana!

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory publishes a Solarize Guidebook that can help individuals or communities plan their own Solarize program.