Missoula business goes all in on solar array as renewable energy future grows
While the city and county of Missoula take steps to achieve 100% clean electricity over the next decade, members of the private sector have set their own goals, and they're willing to make the investment to cut carbon emissions.
From Stockman Bank with its rooftop garden and energy efficient design to Mountain Line and its shift to electric buses, the examples in Missoula are getting easier to find as the new energy future gains momentum.
Early this year, Garden City Plumbing and Heating joined the effort and on Tuesday – a sunny day in Missoula – the company's facility was generating its own electricity.
“We just got done installing a 90-panel solar system and back-up power system in our building,” said David Didier. “It really gives us the ability, no matter what happens with the grid, to be able to be up, to be powered, and to serve our community.”
As Didier tells it, the business ran into a few power outages at key moments, effectively shutting down the operation. As a result, it began exploring options to produce back-up power.
The traditional gasoline generator was the first option, Didier said, though its infrequent use, its need for fuel, the engine maintenance and other issues made it less palpable over the long run.
“With that big of a building, you'd be looking at a pretty serious generator,” Didier said. “We decided instead to look at energy efficiency. Even when we don't need back-up power, now we're utilizing the sun to use some power to mitigate the traditional electricity we use from the grid.”
Pulling power from the grid is something the city and county of Missoula aim to do less, and when they must, they want it to come from renewable sources. According to NorthWestern Energy, around 60% of the electricity that serves Missoula comes from renewable sources, primarily hydro.
Replacing the remaining 40%, which stems from fossil fuels, will take time, and the city and county of Missoula, along with the cities of Bozeman and Helena, are taking steps in that direction. Last month, they inked a contract with a Salt Lake City consultant to help them, in partnership with NorthWestern Energy, create what may become Montana's first green tariff.
This month, Missoula County also adopted its first energy efficient building policy and it could explore solar to power some of its facilities in the future, including the Missoula County Detention Center.
“By default, especially for a lot of people who aren't reading up on solar in the present day, there's a lot of preconceived notions about it, that it doesn't pencil,” said Didier. “With all the tax credits out there, it definitely helps on the financial side. Ours is one of the most complex solar systems in Montana, outside some government facilities.”
The Garden City system, designed and installed by Satic Solar of Missoula, includes three solar arrays, each comprised of 30 panels. In total, the system's 90 panels produce around 30 kilowatt hours of electricity.
The system also includes a military grade inverter and provides 50kwh of backup power using smart lithium batteries – replacing the need for any gasoline generator. It's estimated that it will shave $600 off the company's energy bill. That equals a 10-year payoff and the system is warrantied for 25 years.
Like Garden City, other private businesses in Missoula have taken steps in recent years to address their power consumption and where that power comes from. Mountain Line is replacing its fleet of diesel buses with electric, reducing carbon output by an estimated 100,000 tons.
Stockman Bank's new downtown building was also designed with efficiency in mind. It includes a rooftop garden, solar, efficient glass, rainwater collection and low-flow water fixtures. Together, it results in around 75% less power than a comparable building.
On an even larger scale, KettleHouse Brewing and the Missoula Electric Cooperative teamed up in 2018 to install 189 solar panels on the brewery's production facility in Bonner. A year later, Missoula County subscribed to 37 of those solar panels, meaning it will receive about 20% of the solar plant's electricity for the next 25 years.
Didler said that while some aspects of the private sector may not follow suit for environmental reasons, it may do so for economic reasons.
“The private sector that wouldn't look at this for the environment benefits and wouldn't weight that as much as it does dollars and cents and the business case, if they sat down and looked at the business case, it's a lot more compelling than their preconceived notions might tell them,” Didler said. “There are local lenders that will finance these system. If you look at the tax benefits on top of the energy production, it's pretty compelling.”