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It wasn’t even high noon, but already the new solar array atop L.P. Anderson Tire in Billings was pumping electricity back onto the power grid.

“That’s pretty good considering it’s not a clear day,” said Brad Van Wert, of Harvest Solar. “That’s 40 kilowatts.”

The price of solar panels has never been cheaper, and Van Wert has never been busier. After getting a green light from the electrical inspector for the L.P. Anderson project, he was on his way to Duck Creek, where a feed lot is going solar thanks to a federal tax credit and a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The number of small solar projects on homes and businesses is increasing at a quick pace. There are 1,600 NorthWestern small customers with solar panels now putting power back onto the company’s utility lines. The customers do so through net-metering, pumping power onto the grid when the sun shines, drawing power from NorthWestern Energy when there’s little sun from which to draw. Last year the number of net metering customers on NorthWestern’s system grew by 191. The year before, the number grew by 164. Cost of materials is the big reason for the growth.

The price of solar equipment is half what it was five years ago, according to the Montana Renewable Energy Association. Those prices, combined with grants from NorthWestern’s Energy Efficiency Plus program and federal tax incentives, are stirring interest.

But there’s a also a policy overcast on net metering’s horizon. The Montana Legislature is studying net metering in its Energy and Telecommunications Interim Committee.

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States have for years set rates by which utility customers with solar panels are to be reimbursed for net metering. Now that interest in solar energy is picking up, lawmakers are taking a second look at rate requirements as well as the expectations for both the utilities and customers. In Montana, the amount customers pay for NorthWestern electricity is also the amount customers are paid by NorthWestern for net-metered power.

There was a push in the 2015 Legislature to increase the size of a solar array a customer could have and still qualify for the state-mandated credit for net metering, said Ben Brouwer, Montana Renewable Energy Association policy director. The current limit is 50 kilowatts. There was a bill to increase the amount to 250 kilowatts and another to up the load to a 1,000 kilowatts. Those increases would mainly benefit businesses that want to generate some power.

Van Wert said the increases would bring large commercial businesses with lots of roof space into the fray. Businesses like Wal-Mart, Costco and REI have solar panels on their roofs in other states, but haven’t done so in Montana. Van Wert said that’s because a 50-kilowatt array eligible for net metering in Montana isn’t worth the time for a Wal-Mart-sized business with significant energy needs.

As net metering now exists in Montana, it’s intended to serve homeowners and small businesses, said Butch Larcome, NorthWestern spokesman. A Wal-Mart customer would be putting a considerable amount of power onto NorthWestern’s system and should be expected to shoulder the cost of keeping that transmission system operational. There isn’t currently a way to pass on that cost to a customer with a large solar array, Larcombe said. It isn’t really fair to expect customers who don’t have solar power to pay for the transmission lines used by those who do, he said.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.