Solar energy company in Missoula plans new commercial building, apartments

Rip Hamilton of Solar Plexus in Missoula purchased the company’s Stephens Avenue property in 2005. With business growing, they plan to raze a portion of the building and erect a 3,000 square-foot commercial space with apartments on the top floor. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

With confidence in the energy future high and business growing, a renewable energy company based in Missoula plans to break ground on a $2.2 million commercial space to showcase its technology and highlight its solar offerings.

Solar Plexus, currently located in an old farmhouse on Stephens Avenue, intends to raze a portion of the structure and build a 3,100-square-foot commercial space with three apartments located on the second floor.

On Thursday, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board of directors approved $232,000 in tax increment financing to help move the project forward, including demolition and extending a larger water main to the site.

The funding also includes improvements in the public right of way.

Down at his office shortly after noon, Rip Hamilton, one of the company’s owners, detailed his vision for the project and noted the company’s growth in the industry. Founded in 1994, it specializes in the design and installation of solar and smaller hydroelectric energy systems.

“Off-grid work is way up, but that’s a lot more time-consuming and technical,” said Hamilton. “The commercial grid ties are picking up. We’ve done quite a bit more commercial this year, but not as many residential grid ties as we’d normally do.”

Hamilton’s parents founded the company in its original storefront on Main Street in downtown Missoula. He and his business partner, Lee Tavenner, moved into the Stephens Avenue property in 2003 and purchased it two years later.

The business now finds itself in a changing section of Midtown that’s surrounded by several commercial projects under construction. Next door, Morrison-Maierle is midway through its own multi-million dollar office project and just down the street, onXmaps is gearing up to move into its new three-story building.

An artist’s rendering of the new building planned on Stephens Avenue.

“I think this is the easiest part of town to get around in,” Hamilton said of the location. “In our new building, we have provisions for additional office space, because we’re assuming some growth. Right now, we have four of us full time and a few part time. Hopefully they’ll become full-time positions.”

With the tax increment approved by MRA on Thursday, Hamilton expects to break ground early next year. Along with the commercial space on the ground floor, the project includes one three-bedroom and two two-bedroom apartments on the second floor.

As one might expect from a renewable energy company, the new building will incorporate current efficiencies and sustainable design, from the rooftop solar array to low-water landscaping.

“We’re figuring out the electrical part of it so we can cover the whole building and still have the apartments individually metered,” Hamilton said. “What we intend to do is offset all the apartment units and include electric and utilities.”

As it stands, Hamilton said, the company is not permitted to generate and sell its own electricity. In other words, it can’t sell the power it generates to the apartment tenants, though it can use the power to offset the building’s overall power consumption.

“We’ll have a central meter that monitors everything on the building, and individual meters for the commercial space and the three apartments all separated,” Hamilton said. “What we can’t do is bill for the electricity we generate. We can offset the consumption, but we can’t pass any of the generation on to the tenants.”

The property lies at what’s generally considered the northern gateway to the Midtown district, one the city is working to redevelop with greater density and connectivity, making it suitable for pedestrians and multiple uses.

The area is surrounded by vacant and underutilized storage yards, including that currently occupied by Beach Transportation. The Solar Plexus project continues what MRA sees as a redevelopment trend, something an adequate water main could intensify.

The efforts could also bring other benefits.

“If Beach is going to develop its area, we should be cognizant of Mountain Line’s use of the area and have them participate in the discussions if they need bus stops in that area,” said MRA board member Nancy Moe.