Flathead Electric Installs Montana’s First Co-op Solar Array

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    Dave Munk
    Dave Munk

    A community garden of sorts has sprouted south of Kalispell that will feed the valley’s energy needs for decades to come.

    Flathead Electric Co-op recently installed a community solar array next to its substation off Whitefish Stage Road. The array includes 356 panels in four south-facing rows ideally positioned to absorb the sun’s energy and pump power into the grid.

    Members can purchase a panel for a one-time payment of $900. The member will then receive credit for the energy the panel produces for the life of the project, which the co-op expects to be through 2040.

    Each panel produces 359 kwh of electricity annually, which is projected to return an annual $27 credit based of FEC’s mid-tier residential rate. At that pace – including an initial $270 tax credit and a 2 percent rate escalator – payoff of the investment would come in about 21 years.

    The solar utility network just launched in August and already 40 panels have sold. Business, homeowners and renters can all participate.

    “It’s the long-term forward-thinkers that are opting in,” said Flathead Electric Co-op energy services supervisor Ross Holter. “It’s people who want to make a statement that they support renewable energy.”

    Holter notes the solar project, while not a new concept, is the first of its kind in the state.

    “Flathead Electric has been pretty innovative,” he said, noting the company’s assistance with a hydro-electric plant in Whitefish, the county landfill gas-to-energy project, and the biomass-fueled electric generation at Stoltze Land and Lumber Co.

    “We’re out there on the cutting edge,” Holter added.

    There was no mandate for the solar project, he added, rather FEC took on the project as a service to its members interested in renewable energy.

    Holter says the company is using the economies of scale to make solar available to everyone without the requirement of a huge personal investment for a home system.

    “Community solar is just growing – it’s a great concept,” Holter said. “To put a system on your house, you would have to spend $40,000.”

    And it’s typically not feasible to move the system if the homeowner moves.

    With community solar, the monthly credit can be transferred to a new location served by the co-op or to another member at any time.

    “We had a 90-year-old woman buy a panel,” explained Wendy Ostrom Price, FEC communications director. “She knows she’s not going to get that pay back, but she will leave it to her children.”

    Another member who purchased a panel plans to leave the credit to the Bigfork food bank when he dies.

    “People are thinking long-term,” Holter reiterated.

    Ostrom Price notes that the solar project isn’t impacting the rates for member who aren’t interested in alternative energy.

    “All costs are incorporated into the price of the panel,” she said. “This is voluntary.”

    According to Holter, the solar potential here is similar to Germany, which is considered a world leader in solar production.

    “It can make sense up here,” he said.

    The bulk of production will come between June to September.

    “Then it tapers off in the winter months,” he said. “You have to look at the whole output of the whole year.”

    Maintenance of the solar array is nearly zero, except for plowing snow that builds up around the panels in the winter.

    The co-op doesn’t have immediate plans to expand into other alternative energy sources – the potential for a wind farm here is slim, Holter said – but they’re always looking and willing to try new sources that make sense for its members.

    “We’ve been good about tapping into the potential here,” he said

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