Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

While funding further improvements to the fairgrounds will be up to voters in November, Missoula County plans to explore the possibility of powering the facility with solar, with or without passage of the bond.

The county has been discussing the idea for more than a year now and hasn't lost interest in pursuing a third-party vendor to build an array at the facility, much like the county did with the jail.

“We did make a choice to commit to that (jail) and it made a whole lot of financial sense, not to mention our climate goals,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Something similar would work at the fairgrounds or the other county facilities. It all goes toward our desire to show leadership in helping the community reach 100% clean electricity by 2030.”

The city and county adopted that clean electricity goal together in April 2019 and have been pecking away on progress ever since. The county placed an array on the roof of jail in 2021, and the city has several solar projects on its radar.

The fairgrounds is among the other facilities that could benefit from further solar projects. While voters will consider bonding improvements to the property this November, the idea of placing the property on solar stands separate from the outcome.

The idea has been discussed before, said Bryce Christiaens with the county.

“We do have facilities there that are using a lot of energy,” said Christiaens. “The idea was to utilize that square footage on some of those buildings. But NorthWestern Energy doesn't allow you to aggregate meters on a campus setting.”

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County staff intended to work with NorthWestern on powering the fairgrounds with solar as a campus. Christiaens said the county began creating a package and proposal but never finished the project.

But there may be ways to power the facility without the blessings of NorthWestern. Commissioner Josh Slotnick said the county could install solar on “its side of the meter” and leave the power company out of the equation.

“If it's on our side of the meter, we can almost do whatever we want so long as it doesn't make so much power that it goes beyond what we're using,” Slotnick said. “It only involves NorthWestern if we generate more power than we're using. This is just our power. It's what we did at the jail.”

The county worked with Serock Energy to install a 432 kilowatt solar array on the jail, making it the largest rooftop array in the state. Under the agreement, Serock installed and owns the array and the county will pay 8.5 cents per kilowatt hour for the first five years.

In the sixth year, the county will have the option of buying the array. The system accounts for around 20% of the jail's total electrical consumption.

“The third party financing is a fantastic way to do it. It doesn't cost taxpayers any money in the moment. We don't buy the gear. The third party investor buys the gear and we buy the power back from that person,” Slotnick said. “Our monthly bills don't go up but our carbon footprint goes down. Over time, we end up owning these panels. In the long term, we own them and don' have to buy power from anybody.”

Slotnick said the county could take a similar approach at the fairgrounds, regardless of the bond. But passage of the bond would help.

“One of the things we learned doing the jail project was that scale was super important to the investors,” Slotnick said. “What we found at the jail was that it was almost not big enough. It was right on the edge. We need to make sure that what we intend to do here, if we want to make use of third-party financing, is that it's big enough so there's a legit return.”

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