Grouse Camp is a remote, off-grid collection of yurts in northeastern Montana that belongs to the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a nonprofit organization that is working to build the largest wildlife reserve in the lower 48 states. School groups come to Grouse Camp to learn about the prairie and its wildlife, and volunteers use it as a base to remove fences and build trails on the reserve. Public campgrounds are nearby.
An hour south of Malta, Grouse Camp is far from the nearest power lines. Before last summer, a gasoline-powered generator provided power to the largest of the six yurts, which includes a kitchen, radio communication system, and gathering space. The power was essential, but the generator’s noise and the need to buy and haul in gasoline were hassles for APR. Grouse Camp is a very sunny spot, and in the summer of 2014 APR decided to take advantage of that solar resource by replacing the noisy generator with a clean and silent 530 watt solar array.
The main difference between a remote, off-grid solar array like the one at Grouse Camp and a solar array connected to the electric grid is that off-grid solar requires batteries to store the solar energy so it can be used when the sun is not shining. By contrast, the grid itself is used as backup for a grid-tied solar array, so batteries aren’t needed.
Bozeman- and Eureka-based solar company Thirsty Lake Solar installed the solar array at Grouse Camp. Jeff Wongstrom, owner of Thirsty Lake Solar, reports that because Grouse Camp is so remote, he specified 12 volt batteries rather than the 24 volt batteries that would have been the norm for a system of this size. This means that if a battery dies, a truck battery can be used to keep the power on before a replacement battery arrives. It also means that the 12 volt radio communication system at the site can be hooked directly to the battery.
The Grouse Camp solar array was not APR’s first venture into solar. The reserve includes 43 miles of solar-powered electric fences that keep bison from venturing off the reserve and onto private land. Damien Austin, APR Reserve Supervisor, explains that choosing solar-powered fences was a simple cost calculation: “In an area that rural, it was much more cost-effective than running power out there.”
The prairie reserve’s remote location and focus on conservation make solar a natural choice, and APR has plans to install more. Damien says, “This summer, we're installing two or three solar water pumping stations to provide occasional, in-case-of-drought water for our herd of bison, which will number around 600 after calving season ends next month.”