Flathead Electric project gives boost to solar-energy usage

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workers install a new solar panel on Whitefish Stage Road north of Kalispell in August 2015. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

While hydroelectric power likely will always be the top source of electricity in the Flathead Valley, solar energy is something that some denizens of Northwest Montana have chosen.

Montanans get 0.03 percent of their electricity from solar energy, according to information from the Solar Energy Industry Association. The group said 8,168 homes across the state are powered by solar power. That figure is 0.02 percent higher than it was a year ago, according to the Montana Public Service Commission.

But nationally, Montana’s ranking has fallen from 28th in 2017 to 41st in terms of usage.

According to Flathead Electric Cooperative spokesperson Wendy Ostrom-Price, the company recently completed the second phase of its community solar project, selling all 198 panels.

“One person bought 50 panels, another bought 35, some bought a few, some bought them as Christmas gifts,” Ostrom-Price said. “We also have 40 net metering members, which include homes and businesses.”

Ostrom-Price said many of the people who bought panels wanted to invest in solar energy without having the big costs of installing everything that is necessary to use it.

Renters also can participate, as well as homeowners who don’t have a good location to install solar panels on their property.

The way the program works is that co-op members are able to buy panels, which cost $750 in the second phase. Energy created by the sun is captured in the panels and is transferred to the electrical grid. It is then distributed to members who are participating in the program.

Ostrom-Price said users will see bill credits soon.

According to co-op information, each $750 panel is projected to produce 373 kilowatt hours of electricity annually. This projection is calculated based on experience with its existing solar array and others in the service territory, but will vary slightly year to year. At Flathead Electric’s current mid-tier residential energy rate of $0.0799, the annual total of the monthly bill credits should equal about $29.80.

That value would change if rates change over time.

Those who buy solar panels are eligible for a $225 tax credit. The initial yearly energy credit is $29.80.

For example, for someone participating in Flathead Electric’s solar program, he or she could lock in today’s rates by prepaying for a block of renewable energy. It is estimated a user would receive about 8,800 kilowatt hours with a net cost of $525, which means the person is prepaying at 6 cents per kilowatt hour, nearly 2 cents less than the mid-tier rate.

The project is scheduled to end in 2043 in conjunction with the warranted life of the panels.

Ostrom-Price also said there are electric cars being driven in the area and Flathead Electric installed Montana’s first vehicle charging station in the front parking lot of its Kalispell headquarters. The charging station is available for folks who want to pull in and power up their electric vehicles.

There are also charging stations located in Whitefish, Kalispell, Bigfork and Glacier National Park.

For more information visit www.flatheadelectric.com or call 751-4483.

Reporter Scott Shindledecker may be reached at 406-758-4441 or sshindledecker@dailyinterlake.com

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