Most residential electric meters rotate counterclockwise as energy is consumed. But on the back of Kris Spanjian’s house off Molt road, the flat disk reverses course during the day.
With her husband Ray Gilbertson, the couple recently installed solar panels on the outbuildings of their small ranch. Engineers from Bozeman Green Build said their specific system would pay for itself in 13 years, and make at least 80% of the couple’s energy on site.
“Why not make your own energy?” Spanjian said. “The technology and reliability has advanced so much in the last 20 years.”
Spanjian and Gilbertson joined a dozen other Billings-area residents investing in solar energy through the Solarize Billings campaign, sponsored by the Northern Plains Resource Council.
The informational campaign made online videos and connected interested residents to companies to streamline the relatively unknown but increasingly feasible way for people to generate their own energy.
On the grid solar
In the last three years, residential solar panel users grew to nearly 1% of all energy customers in Montana. Most solar users in Montana stay on the power grid with a ‘net metering’ system.
Instead of an off-grid system, which stores extra energy in batteries, when solar panels create energy it is immediately used to power the home. But if no energy is being used, or a residence is using less than the panels generate, the excess power is sent to the power grid.
The exported energy shows up as an energy credit, which essentially gives the owner free power when the solar panels are not creating energy. Brad Van Wert, owner of Harvest Solar in Bozeman, told The Gazette the ideal solar array would allow homeowners to never pay for energy again.
“The term is net zero,” Van Wert said. “Depending on how much power someone uses, and the size of their roof, they could just be paying a membership bill for power.”
Each system is different, but on average an array generates 7-10 kilowatts (KW) a year, about equal to a how much electricity a house uses. An array costs roughly $19,000, and fluctuates based on the energy use and the positioning of the panels. On average, it takes nine years to pay for itself.
Both companies do a majority of their work on net metering systems. Off grid, which is what John Palm at Bozeman Green Build first focused on, requires expensive batteries.
“Doing a net metering system is much more feasible for people,” Palm said.
Though the two companies are based in Bozeman, they have crews stationed in Billings for projects. The demand for solar has increased so much that they are traveling across the state to install panels on ranches, tribal community centers and recently the Billings Public Library.
The two green energy companies partnered with the Solarize Billings campaign, organized by the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, a part of Northern Plains.
Their website includes instructional videos on how solar works, contacts for companies, and gives access to free feasibility assessments. Van Wert said solar for many has appeared unclear on its effectiveness and longevity. The campaign hopes to change that narrative.
“What I thought was nice about this campaign is they just told you the facts,” Van Wert said. “People can get nervous when speaking with a salesman or trying to piece it together on their own.”
The push to add solar panels, which officially ended July 31, assessed 57 households for a price quote. Eleven of those assessments turned into contracts to install panels, and the Resource Council expected more of the 57 of the interested members to sign on in the coming weeks.
Tyler Mortenson, one of the organizers for the campaign, said he wanted to go solar for years. After a year of planning the project, he signed up for an assessment.
“I always wanted to do my part with generating power, but I did not know how to start,” Mortenson said. “Working with some local green energy experts and our web designer we made a simpler process for people.”
After he got in touch with one of the solar companies, the crew surveyed his house, a smaller home near Pioneer Park. They found shading prevented light from coming through the ideal spot on Mortenson’s roof.
On Mortenson’s home, the crew designed the panels to straddle both sides of his garage, adding an extra panel to capture more sunlight. The 5.1 KW system will take 15 years to pay back, but will cover 100% of his power needs.
“We’re not crazy about the thermostat because we want to be aware of our energy use,” he said. “Doing something greener like this makes me feel better about using power.”
Van Wert said a misconception is how solar panels might not be effective if they are not constantly in use. Solar companies calculate the annual power intake based on previous energy use, and then match it the best they can with a panel system.
Replacing old energy
As humans are beginning to exhaust finite energy sources like gas and coal, and the evidence of human-caused climate change continues to build, many in the U.S. have prioritized going green to match energy consumption.
Nationwide, 3% of all electricity comes from solar panels, more than 36 times its share from a decade ago, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency predicts one out of seven homes will have panels on their roofs by 2030, in part because of the falling price of manufacturing the panels.
Twenty-two thousand square miles of panels, roughly the size of Lake Michigan, could power the entire country.
Montana’s commercial solar projects have lagged behind other states, but new solar farms in places like Dillon and Yellowstone County could exponentially increase the total output in the next three years.
For now, the movement to add solar residences has been small-scale due to the upfront cost of panels. The government now foots some of the bill.
A federal tax credit covers 26% of solar panel installations. The state of Montana gives another tax credit of $500, but that ends after this fiscal year.
Jo Dee Black, communications specialist for Northwestern Energy, said 3,275, or 0.85% of their Montana residents and business customers have tapped into net metering solar. She said the numbers have been steadily increasing each year.
There is no limit to the amount of energy members can net meter. The monopoly utility previously requested that the rates increase for net metering customers once those customers reach 5% of the portfolio, but the Public Service Commission denied that change.
However, the utility company has a policy that reviews a local power line when the amount of net metering customers reaches 15% of the area’s customers.
A feeder line, connected to a substation, could have anywhere between a dozen to hundreds of users because of varying populations in rural and urban areas.
“We do it to make sure the feeder line stays reliable,” Black said.
Even when systems reach over 15%, like when a subdivision in Gallatin County planned for every house to be net metered, the utility company said the area’s power would remain stable.
The on-grid energy system, however, comes with state restrictions. The original Montana statutes on solar that date back to the 1990s limit net meters to 50 KW per account, which produces enough electricity to cover the average energy needs of seven houses a year.
Andrew Valainis, executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association, said net metering is great for houses and small businesses, but it becomes less effective when dealing with larger companies.
“If you are a large business that uses a lot of power there is no way to get a larger solar panel to cover your consumption,” Valainis said.
Bills in the Montana state legislature could have upped the limit to 1,000 KW in 2015, but they were dropped. Previous Gazette reporting said the limit stopped some nationwide chains, like Wal-Mart, Costco and REI, from using solar panels in Montana.
Another type of system, called non-exporting solar panels, can be larger than 50 KW, but cannot send extra energy to the power grid. Valainis said these power producers can be installed for large energy users, like a project planned at Montana State University.
The university project is still in development, but systems like it are complex and have to be able to disperse the excess energy on a closed circuit. Most large scale systems, like the Billings West, Senior and Skyview high schools, rely on 50 KW systems for partial energy savings.
Spanjian and Gilbertson were not new to solar when they joined the Solarize Billings campaign. In 2004, they won a Northwestern Energy lottery for partially subsidized solar panels.
That system, a mere 1.2 KW, only produced 9% of their energy needs, despite being half the size of their new system. It also broke down regularly, and when Northwestern Energy came by to help fix it, they couldn’t help but notice the amount of power continued to drop.
“I don’t really trust Northwestern Energy,” Spanjian said. “Sometimes I’m worried our generation will be less over time.”
After four years and two new power converters, they didn’t bother to turn it on. The panel still sits on the ground on the corner of their property.
Their new array, however, has some modern features. Spanjian can check how much power the system is making through an app on her phone. On the afternoon of Aug. 4, the system had already generated all their energy needs for the day.
She said the information is a comforting feeling, especially because the solar company gets the diagnostics too. If anything goes wrong, the company will go check it out. Spanjian and Gilbertson are confident in their new power supply, and hope more people will follow suit.
“If you can get the community to embrace it, certainly it will make a difference,” Spanjian said. “Its a better way to be sustainable while saving money over time.”