In 2020, MREA launched the Montana Rural Solar Access Project with the goal of ensuring that our rural communities across the state have access to the independence, cost savings, and resiliency that distributed solar can offer. In the Summer of 2020, we kicked off Phase One of the project with a research and literature review to understand how rural communities have gained access to distributed solar development in other states, what opportunities and challenges those communities faced, and how organizations like ours could bring these best practices to Montana. This year, we launched Phase Two to ‘ground truth’ this research here at home.
Between July and September of 2021, we held community meetings in Fort Benton, Havre, White Sulphur Springs, Red Lodge, Dillon, Hamilton, Forsyth, Glasgow, Columbia Falls, and Shelby. At each meeting, we began by briefly sharing the basics of going solar and then spent the majority of our time discussing the community’s interests, concerns, questions, and priorities. At the end of each meeting, we passed out a brief survey to capture attendee’s perspectives. While visiting each community, we also talked to representatives of local government, economic development organizations, universities, extension agents, and more to better understand how solar may align with the communities’ goals and needs.
While there were unique perspectives shared in each community, there were also themes that came up across the state. A common interest was in pairing battery storage with distributed solar. Some community members were interested in this technology to increase their resilience during short-term outages and others wondered how they may be able to use batteries to support off-grid living year-round. Another key interest was in using distributed solar on agricultural operations to offset energy costs or to provide power to water pumps or electric fencing located far from power lines. Savings on energy bills, whether on agricultural operations, homes, or businesses, was by far the most common interest that we heard across the state.
Along with these interests, community members also helped us understand the challenges they saw to accessing and developing distributed solar. The up-front cost was a commonly cited concern and several community members were interested in available incentives that may bring that cost down, even asking what new incentives might be included in the latest federal legislation. In addition to concerns about cost, it was also common for community members to have several questions about the durability of distributed solar systems and the process for installation. Some of the most common questions were about how panels fair in severe winter conditions, like snow, wind, and hail. Other common questions focused on how to find local installers in the state. These types of questions show clear interest in distributed solar technology, but also demonstrate a clear need for more information.
For a more detailed look at what we learned, read our Phase Two Report where we brought together these key interests and challenges to more fully discuss the opportunities and challenges that exist in our rural communities. Thank you to the Montanans who shared their time with us and provided their perspectives and insights. It is exciting to weave together all we have learned into our Phase Two Report and we are pleased to share our findings with you. Be sure to stay tuned for our third and final phase of this project, where we focus on bringing what we learned into action through engagement and advocacy programs that can help increase access to, and development of, distributed solar across our state