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Sustainable Missoula: Solar is no longer an ‘alternative’ energy source

The 85 kW solar installation on Missoula’s Park Place parking garage. (MMW Architects)

As communities seek greater resilience in a changing energy landscape, they are increasingly focusing on renewables as a key piece of their energy independence.

Utility-scale renewable energy installations are more cost competitive than ever with fossil fuel and natural gas.

In 2017, Montana saw 17 MW worth of utility-scale solar installed. These were the first utility-scale solar installations in the state, and they tripled Montana’s total solar capacity in one fell swoop.

Nationally, as well as here in Montana, more utilities and electric cooperatives are exploring shared solar as a model for offering their customers access to the benefits of solar energy. And an ever-increasing number of homeowners, schools, businesses and municipalities are installing their own distributed generation systems, like rooftop solar and small wind.

Renewable energy is no longer an “alternative energy” source.

Now is an important time for local action to keep momentum building in the right direction. Fortunately, Missoula has demonstrated its dedication to doing just that.

In 2012, Missoula published its Municipal Conservation and Climate Action Plan, with recommendations for increasing the use of methane capture and solar energy throughout municipal operations. This was followed by a community wide effort that is ongoing today.

Both the city and the county have subscribed to Missoula Electric Cooperative’s shared solar array, offsetting their energy use with clean, renewable solar energy.

It’s important to see the city and county lead by example. However, the other piece of the puzzle is enabling action within the community itself to help residents and business owners find and amplify their own voice.

The Montana Renewable Energy Association has had the opportunity to support the city and county’s efforts in doing just that. MREA is a statewide organization, but has been able to leverage that position to bring technical assistance to local communities from organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Rocky Mountain Institute and The Solar Foundation.

One example of this is The Solar Foundation’s “SolSmart” program. SolSmart is a national program that helps communities lower the “soft costs” of going solar.

If the “hard costs” of solar are things like the panels, racking and wiring, then the soft costs include lowering permitting fees and streamlining permit requirements, reviewing zoning codes to incentivize solar, providing information on financing options, and stepping up community engagement and education.

With the support of the National Renewable Energy Lab and the Rocky Mountain Institute, MREA is engaged with six communities around Montana, including the city of Missoula and Missoula County, in an effort to make going solar easier for their residents.

Through SolSmart, MREA has worked with the city and county to demystify the solar permitting processes by providing a “solar permitting checklist” that explains the permits and other paperwork you need to install solar at your home or business.

MREA helped the city and the county develop solar landing pages on their websites that host these checklists, as well much more information community members may need to “go solar.”

MREA also worked with the city, county and local partners to host two “Solar-ease” community workshops. These workshops provided information on Montana’s energy landscape and key state policy issues; discussed how to work through a bid with an installer; and concluded with information on financing options.

Attendees were then connected directly with local installers who had tables at the event. It was exciting to see the turnout at these events, and hear the discussions that took place among community members, local government staff, energy advocates and installer businesses.

Through SolSmart and other programs like it, MREA hopes to continue finding venues for these conversations.

Now is an important time to amplify the voices that are calling for more renewable energy in Montana. Making your voice heard can take many different forms.

Engaging with elected officials is an obvious one, but attending workshops like Solar-ease or installing renewable energy systems at your home or business is another very active and visible way to demonstrate support for these issues.

As these conversations and actions develop, organizations like MREA can help bring the information to the decision makers. Then we can begin making the changes that will remove the barriers that are preventing residents, businesses, schools, and municipalities from lowering their energy costs.

They are preventing the renewable energy industry in Montana from achieving its full potential and offering more local, well-paying jobs. And they are preventing communities seeking greater resilience from achieving the energy independence they want.

We look forward to continuing to support these conversations in an effort to realize our vision of a Montana powered by clean, renewable energy.

Andrew Valainis is executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association.

Upcoming events:

June 9: Why does my world look different from yours?Rankin Peace Center offers workshops, conversations and more to build peace from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the UCC, 405 University Avenue, Missoula. Free.

June 18: Help Freecycles bring bikes to kids on tribal lands.No experience required. Lunch & bus ride provided. Leave Freecycles at 9 a.m. return by 6 p.m. To volunteer & get more info, email programs@strans.org.

June 20: Sustainable Communities Tour offered by Homeword: from 12 to 1 p.m. in Missoula. More info & RSVP to erin@homeword.org or call 532-4663, ext. 10.

August 11: 8thAnnual Montana Clean Energy Fair (Bozeman, MT). The fair is a great place to engage in conversations on renewable energy! It will feature workshops on solar, wind, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and other clean energy technologies; exhibits by clean energy businesses; and an electric car show. Plus there will be food vendors and kids’ activities including a bouncy castle, solar ovens, and model solar car races. Find out more: www.montanarenewables.org .