Missoula Electric Cooperative offers members renewable energy through Community Solar Project
The Missoula Electric Cooperative (“MEC”) is a member-owned electric provider that services rural customers in the county of Missoula. In August of 2016, MEC completed installation of their second shared solar array, located on the rooftop of the Frenchtown elementary school. A shared solar array, commonly referred to as a “solar garden,” is a large array of solar photovoltaic panels with several key characteristics: the project is usually owned and operated by an energy provider; they are large, single installations; and they are offered in portions to multiple “subscribers” who can lease or purchase one or multiple panels in the array. This allows the customer to reap the benefits of the solar energy system, even though it’s not located on their roof. Solar gardens are great for customers who are unable to install solar on their home. This could be due to shade from trees, a roof angle that isn’t optimal for solar, or even for renters who don’t have the authority to install solar on the house. Solar gardens also require a lower up-front cost, which can make them more accessible for certain subscribers.
The first MEC solar garden was installed in January of 2016 and is located outside of Lolo. The new project, simply named Phase II, is a 50 kilowatt system comprised of 184 panels. The array is unique in that Co-Op members can lease the panels for 25-year intervals, and net-meter their electric output just the same as if the panels were wired to their own residence. In other words, the co-op will track the energy production from the system and then credit the energy to the customer on a monthly cycle.
The partnership between the MEC and the Frenchtown School District was a great fit. The co-op had been looking for a location to build a new array, attempting to cut costs by implementing a rooftop design, which can be less expensive than a ground mount system that may require additional support structures. Janelle Ramaker from Jordan Solar, the installer of both Phase I and Phase II, said the project faced some unique design challenges. “We wanted to match the production of the first phase, which is located in Lolo and installed on ground mounts at a 35-degree tilt, facing South. For Phase 2, we were installing on two separate roof-tops, oriented South-east and South-west at about a 14-degree tilt. The heat from the roof, the orientation and the tilt were going to make Phase 2 less efficient, so we compensated by adding six more panels to the system. After watching a year of monitoring on the two systems, Phase 1 produces more power in the fall, winter and spring and Phase 2 produces more power in the summer, when it really counts. Overall, they balance out to a very similar annual total”. The Frenchtown elementary school’s large flat rooftop was an ideal location for the new solar garden. In return for use of the roof, the school receives the energy output from one of the panels for the 25-year life of the project. The Frenchtown school district is a member of the cooperative, and the panel’s output will be net metered to the elementary school’s electric bill.
The motivation for Phase II came from the high demand for community solar after the success of MEC’s Phase I project located in Lolo. According to Mark Hayden, general manager of MEC, several members requested more options for solar generation be added to the co-ops electricity supply profile. Since MEC gets its energy from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which is largely powered by hydro-dams, they boast a nearly carbon-free energy supply. However, there was a small portion keeping MEC from reaching the 100% mark. The solar gardens helped them close that gap. Phase II drew in many repeat customers who bought in to the initial community solar project of Phase I. Electric generation from the system can be viewed and tracked in real-time through intuitive graphics provided by Solar Edge. Phase II was funded in part by the USDA’s Renewable Energy for America program.
Though the Missoula Electric Cooperative is not pursuing a Phase III solar at this time, MEC is just one of many cooperatives around the state which are advancing their renewable energy profiles through innovative projects. Solar gardens are becoming a popular model for utilities, and co-ops throughout Montana are beginning to experiment with the model, providing more energy choice and independence for electric customers.