County buys into community solar project

The Missoula Electric Cooperative solar array south of Lolo.


Looking to reduce its carbon footprint, Missoula County closed a deal with Missoula Electric Cooperative to purchase 10 solar panels in a new array south of Lolo.

While the county had sought to secure additional panels and further reduce its use of fossil fuels, the panels weren’t available. In fact, the cooperative and its new array has sold out of space.

“We’ll be looking in our budget process to purchase an additional 49 panels if they become available in phase 2 of their project,” said Pat O’Herren, head of the county’s planning office. “If we’re able to find the appropriate funding for 49 panels, it would mean our use of electricity through the cooperative would take our fossil fuels to zero.”

Roughly 95 percent of MEC’s power comes from non-carbon sources generated by the Bonneville Power Administration. That leaves 5 percent from fossil fuels – a figure that helped launch the cooperative’s “Take 5” initiative.

The effort challenges members like the county to take 5 percent of their average annual power consumption and offset it by participation in MEC’s community array.

“It challenges you to take 5 percent of your energy bill and go carbon free with solar through their community array, so you can claim that you’re 100 percent carbon free,” said Rowley. “To take 5 percent of our power bill and go solar, we’d have to purchase 59 panels, but their project was so popular that they only have 10 left for us.”

For now, the county will settle for those 10 panels with an eye on more down the road. Each panel generates roughly 340 kilowatt hours a year and currently costs $700. Given the current rate of electricity, the payback is roughly 20 to 23 years, the county said.

“We’re paying for tomorrow’s power at today’s rates in a clean, climate-friendly way,” said Rowley. “It’s guaranteed for 25 years – the life of the contract – and it should pay for itself in 20-23 years.”

While the county doesn’t have a carbon-reduction plan, it is working on steps to reduce its carbon footprint. It’s moving more fuel-efficient vehicles into the motor pool and swapping out high-energy lighting.

It’s also working to address climate change in its new growth policy.

“This is opportunity for the county to partner with the city and MEC to purchase 10 solar panels that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels for energy generation,” said O’Herren. “It helps us adapt and mitigate our impacts on climate change.”