Editor’s note: For the first few month of 2019, Sustainable Missoula will feature a series of articles to build broader understanding of the 0-50-100 sustainability framework: Zero Waste, 50 percent sustainable trips, and 100 percent clean electricity for Missoula. This article is the second in a series on 100 percent clean electricity.

In our February 1st column, we placed Missoula’s efforts to embrace renewable energy in the larger context, encouraging advocacy via the state Legislature, NorthWestern Energy and more. A month later, that's still where much of the action is. And now there’s a Green New Deal, the Sunrise Movement and real debates in Washington, D.C. Momentum is building.

Missoula too has momentum, and for us to get to 100 percent clean electricity, we need to embrace the sun. So today, let’s talk homegrown solar, a smart choice as we quickly move to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

First, a quick exercise. Close your eyes, pretend it’s mid-day in mid-July, imagine looking up at the sky. Wait – don’t forget your sunglasses, you’ll need ‘em. Sunscreen too. We know Missoula’s winters — especially this one — have us pining for sun, and it can be hard to see solar as workable. But from May through October, work it does.  We can generate enough solar power during the sunny season to last the rest of the year. Luckily, for those with panels connected to the electric grid, the extra energy produced in the summer is credited to you, via your electricity bill. This is “net-metering,” fully explained here.

Look around Missoula and you notice more solar arrays popping up. According to NorthWestern Energy and the Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA), from 2000-2015 Missoula saw ~967 kW of installed solar PV (for reference, one home system is ~3-10kW). Then system prices dropped precipitously. At the same time, we worked with partners to embark on education efforts, and the next 2.5 years more than doubled that number — the solar acceleration is on.

Missoulians want clean energy and for those who own a home, many can get it: After bit of homework, meeting with an installer, and getting a few questions answered, shabam, you’re a renewable energy producer. There are things to consider and figure out: Will my roof work, how big a system do I need, how do I finance this, and how can I claim those tax credits? We answer those questions and so many more on our “Solar-ease” webpage. We even worked with MREA and other local partners to create two short (and fun!) videos that tell you what you need to know. In 10 minutes, you’ll be so inspired. Please watch and tell us what you think.

Many of you are rightly concerned with proposals by NorthWestern Energy to change the rates they charge for those with net metered solar systems. Suffice it to say the proposed changes aren’t good, and there’s too much to the story to detail here, but MREA (of course!) has everything you need to know.

But what about those of us who rent our homes (which is about half of us in Missoula)? Renters are mostly out of luck for rooftop solar. As part of this community, wouldn’t it be nice (and right) to be able to buy into a shared off-site solar system? Current law says no for NorthWestern Energy customers; policy advocates have worked to change state law, so far to no avail.

Community or Shared Solar systems have proven to work around the country and in Montana. They even work in the Missoula area via the Missoula Electric Cooperative (MEC) which abides by different rules, and they are on it! From the MEC website: [Our] community solar program, Solarshare, provides co-op members the opportunity to acquire renewable solar energy from centrally located, cooperatively owned solar gardens. Community solar programs like Solarshare are a smart and simple way to enjoy the benefits of solar power without the installation or maintenance costs of on-site installations.

MEC has embarked on a program to build larger systems and offer members the opportunity to buy in by purchasing the output of one or more panels. They now have three Community Gardens:

  • A 189-panel solar array in partnership with KettleHouse Brewing covering the roof of the Bonner K-House Brewery. MEC members who purchase a share in this Garden get all of the benefits of solar energy + are enrolled in the KettleHouse’s Renew-A-Mug Club—you not only get credit for solar energy produced, you can enjoy a free beer each day you wander into the brewery’s new taproom. This is why Climate Smart presented Mark Hayden, General Manager of MEC and the Tim O’Leary co-owner of KettleHouse with a 2018 Smart Pants Award.
  • A 186-panel solar array on the roof of the Frenchtown Elementary School purchased by 38 households and businesses participating (2016).
  • A 176-panel solar array in Lolo purchased by 53 households and businesses (2015).

If you’re lucky enough to be a MEC member (or know someone who is) learn more and sign up here. As the Missoula Electric Co-op says: Harnessing the sun’s energy has never been this easy.

There is one more non-homeowner way we can wisely grow our solar. Community buildings can also host larger scale solar projects – think library, school, nonprofit or city office building. A benefit of these projects is that the energy savings are passed on to the community members through lower operating costs, leaving more funds for programs and staff.

Legislation, rules and policy matter when it comes to solar. So now a quick update about solar happenings at the state Legislature at the halfway point. With the help of our nonprofit friends like the Montana Renewable Energy Association and MEIC, we’ve updated our Montana Legislature web page, where you can connect with partners (like MREA and MEIC), legislators and solar bills.  

We have bills to support on our website. Here are three to OPPOSE:

  • HB 144 would eliminate solar and energy conservation tax credits
  • HB 487 would mess up our current Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS)
  • SB 93 discriminates against large-scale solar development by adding additional red tape requirements

Finally, NorthWestern Energy will soon release its latest Resource Procurement Plan. Will they offer us smart solar, wind, storage or will it be ill-advised natural gas? We’ll all have 60 days to comment and we’ll let you know right here.  

You’ll be hearing more about how solar fits into goals for Missoula to meet our 100 percent clean electricity goals in the weeks to come. We’ve updated the 100% Options Report. The county has joined the effort. UM students are behind it. The momentum is real. The future is bright. Here comes the sun, and I say, it’s all right.

Amy Cilimburg is Executive Director at Climate Smart Missoula. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

March 10. Citizens Climate Lobby Training: How to Become a Climate Advocate. Missoula Public Library large meeting room. 1-4pm.

March 13. Faith & Climate Action MT monthly meeting. Emmaus House, 532 University Ave. 12 - 1 pm.

March 14. Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup: Zero Waste is this month’s topic. Imagine Nation Brewing from 5 – 7 p.m.

March 16 & 18. Community dialogues on 100% Clean Energy: A Livable Missoula for All. March 16, 9 am - 12 pm at Home ReSource & March 18, 6 - 9 pm at Missoula Public Library. Details and registration HERE.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.