Keila Szpaller

(Daily Montanan) NorthWestern Energy has another 80 megawatts of solar power in its portfolio with a new project in Dillon — described as equal to the largest solar project in Montana.

Tuesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte celebrated Apex Solar in Beaverhead County as “American-made energy in Montana” with a ribbon cutting.

The facility is 600 acres and went online Aug. 4.

“We’re ramping up energy production in Montana with our all-of-the-above approach, from wind, to oil and gas, to solar, to hydropower,” Gianforte said in a statement. “We’ll continue to promote innovation and reduce burdensome regulations to be a leader in energy production and attract job creators like Clēnera to Montana.”

Rep. Tom Welch, R-Dillon, said House Bill 346 from 2021 supported the project with a tax break for solar. He said Beaverhead County Commissioners brought him the idea in anticipation of a project such as Apex Solar.

“We never got a negative vote on the whole bill,” Welch said.

All Republicans and Democrats voted yes in the House and Senate, and Gianforte, a Republican, signed it.

At press time, the Governor’s Office did not have additional information about the specific role the state played in opening the Dillon facility.

Apex Solar is a joint project of Enlight Renewable Energy and solar-focused subsidiary Clēnera, according to a joint news release the companies sent in August.

NorthWestern Energy has a 20-year contract for power from Apex.

NorthWestern spokesperson Jo Dee Black said Tuesday the utility has added 160 megawatts of solar through facility contracts since 2022, including the project in Dillon.

A NorthWestern energy consumption chart showed solar accounted for as much as 158 megawatts out of the 794 needed last Thursday.

Black said NorthWestern has contracts in place for solar, wind and hydro power through a federal act that supports renewable projects. She also said the natural gas plant the company is building in Laurel will provide customers on-demand energy.

The Laurel plant is controversial because of its high cost — $250 million, for which customers will be asked to pay — and a high level of greenhouse gas emissions.

In April, the Montana Public Service Commission held a hearing on a NorthWestern rate case that’s still pending and drew questions about the company’s energy sources.

Witnesses asked whether NorthWestern adequately takes climate change into consideration in its energy portfolio.

A PSC spokesperson said Tuesday he anticipates commissioners will hold a meeting to consider an order in the case sometime “in the near term,” still this year.

The Montana Environmental Information Center is a party to the case — but not a signer to a proposed settlement. It has advocated for NorthWestern to include more renewable and affordable energy sources for consumers.

MEIC Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs Anne Hedges said Tuesday the solar project in Dillon is a win on many fronts.

“We are happy that the governor supports a solar project,” Hedges said in an email. “Such clean energy development provides great benefit to the utility customers, communities, and the climate.

“We wish the governor would support policies that would incentivize more of these valuable projects instead of focusing on protectionist policies for the fossil fuel industry, especially when coal and gas are so much more expensive than clean energy resources for customers and the climate.”

The news release from the Governor’s Office said Apex Solar is an installation of 198,300 modules supplying 80 megawatts that’s powering 13,500 homes.

“With more American-made energy in Montana, we’ll also reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources and bring down the cost of energy for Montanans,” Gianforte said.

In a statement, Welch praised the project: “This project has been a great one for southwest Montana.”