Customers at Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio often comment on the black, shiny solar panels on the business’s roof.

“The public loves to see it here, doing something for the environment and saving energy,” said manager Sandy Rasmussen. 

But Rasmussen said the panels, which were installed in 2018, provide more than just an environmental face for the business. They also save money. The building is tall and narrow, a prime spot, Rasmussen says, to capture the sunlight.

Merle Norman is just one of a growing number of local businesses going solar. The payoff, in electricity savings and as a cue of forward thinking, at the end of the day benefits the businesses.

B.D. Erickson, C.E.O. of Satic Solar in Missoula, said the financial return for installing solar panels is better for businesses than homes. Not only can businesses get loans and tax credits for installing solar panels, but they have the option to write off the costs in their taxes.

“Some people just do it for the street cred,” Erickson said.

This past winter, Garden City Plumbing and Heating installed solar panels rather than purchasing a generator for electrical backup.

David Didier, who was the marketing and IT director at the store during the installation, said it was a six-figure investment, but the goal was to try to think about the impacts of a power outage on the business, as well as the environmental impact of using solar panels.

“It’d be very hard to invest over $100,000 on a system just for those aspects of it,” Didier said. “It has to be able to pencil out and function, too.”

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

In September, the United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the Rural Energy for America Program to help rural businesses or agricultural producers finance renewable energy systems. Not every installation qualifies and there is a timeline, but agricultural producers or rural businesses—those in a town no greater than 50,000 people—can see benefits in energy efficiency improvements relating to lighting, cooling or refrigeration, or solar, among other things.

Erickson, in a YouTube video, walked viewers through how an $80,000 solar array supplemented by a REAP grant, federal tax incentives and financing provided by the Missoula Federal Credit Union can cost as little as $7,000.

“It’s almost free,” Erickson said.

Businesses can save around $600 per month on their energy bill with a $100,000 installation, according to Erickson. The lower energy bill doubles as a marketing budget.

John Freer, director of the sustainable construction technology program at Missoula College, said for businesses, the bottom line is often most important. “They’re willing to do the environmental thing as long as it doesn’t cut into their profits significantly,” he said.

According to Freer, there is no disruption in business operation when panels are installed. Businesses never disconnect from the electrical grid during the transition to solar power.

In fact, once the solar panels are installed, businesses cannot say for sure where their electricity is coming from. Freer said in Montana, very little energy coming off and going into the grid is green energy, or energy produced from water, wind or solar power.

“When it’s coming in the grid, your chances are pretty high that it’s a fossil fuel generated electricity,” Freer said.

Solar energy is just offsetting energy, or providing another way to use energy. What conservation does is decrease the amount of energy a business uses, Freer said, and the more you can decrease usage, the better.

Like the three R’s, to make a significant change, one has to focus on reduce and reuse and place recycle a few tiers lower. Freer said he has seen too much money spent on “higher exposure, sexy solar panels” at the expense of making decisions that are forward thinking, like conserving energy instead of spending it in a different way.

And running in the background is remembering that businesses cannot control what type of energy they pull off the grid. They may have solar panels on their roof, but until all the energy going into the grid is created from wind, water or solar power, it is still likely that fossil fuels are powering a business.

“It’s complicated and it’s politicized and it’s messy,” Freer said.

Freer loves solar power but understands that installing solar panels is just one step in energy sustainability.

“It’s always been true, the greenest and cheapest energy we have is the energy we don’t use,” he said.