Early summer start date anticipated, solar panel generation for sale soon.

close up of solar panels

WHITEFISH, Montana – Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC) is the recipient of a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Rural Energy Program for America (REAP) program. The $495,535 grant will help fund the Co-op’s third community solar project. The project will also receive a $50,000 grant from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF).

The project, known as Community Solar III, is being developed in partnership with the City of Whitefish in response to the City’s Climate Action Plan which calls for the installation of a solar photovoltaic facility near the Whitefish Wastewater Treatment Plant. As approved by the Whitefish City Council early last year, the City will lease the land to FEC in exchange for the generation from a panel in the project, which will offset electricity use at the plant. Construction is expected to begin early this summer on the facility which will be managed and maintained by FEC.

“We have benefited from a great partnership with FEC to bring about this solar PV project that will benefit our community into the future,” said City of Whitefish Engineering and Sustainability Project Manager Karin Hilding.

Grant agreements require FEC to maintain ownership of the panels, but the electricity generated from the Community Solar III will be for sale to members of the Co-op this spring to offset their electric bills. Those sales will cover 100% of the project costs remaining after grant funds.

“Grant funds help make solar generation more affordable to Co-op members who are interested in solar technology,” shares Katie Pfennigs, Community Relations Manager for the Co-op, “and the community solar model offers an option for members who may not otherwise be able to purchase panels – maybe because they rent or because they don’t have a suitable location at their home or business for solar generation.”

“The Co-op relies primarily on federal hydropower obtained through the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), which results in our area’s already 97% carbon-free power mix,” continued Pfennigs. “While the project does not materially change the carbon footprint of Whitefish or of those who buy a share in the project, it does offer a unique opportunity for Co-op members to offset their electricity purchases with locally generated power.”

Community Solar III will feature over 400 solar panels capable of cumulatively generating 200 kilowatts (kW) of carbon-free electricity. The Co-op is also pairing the solar array with a 200kW utility-scale battery to capture the energy produced. The battery will mostly be charged by the solar panels but can also be charged by the grid when needed.

Ashley Keltner, Distributed Energy Resource Specialist for the Co-op, and lead staffer on the project, expands, “in a transmission-constrained and growing area like ours, all grid generation is welcome generation. However, solar generation is generally not available when our area needs it most – for example, at 7 a.m. on a dark, cloudy, negative-thirty-degree January morning. Having utility-scale batteries to capture the energy generated by the solar panels and allow it to be deployed to the grid when it is needed turns this project into a much more valuable resource for the Co-op.”

The battery may also be used to reduce the Co-op’s customer system peaks by adding electricity onto the grid during peak times, which typically occur between 7 am. to 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays. This practice would benefit all members of the Co-op by reducing the peak charges FEC pays to BPA on its wholesale power bill.

Additionally, the battery is the first of its kind in Northwest Montana and will allow the Co-op to better understand how utility-scale batteries can enhance the reliability of variable energy resources (VER) such as solar and wind. The Co-op’s two existing Community Solar Projects do not have batteries. Members that purchase generation from the panels in Community Solar III will not fund or own any part of the battery system.

“This investment represents the heart of our work at USDA Rural Development,” said Kathleen Williams, USDA Rural Development State Director for Montana. “It incorporates community-driven solutions, the advancement of emerging battery storage technology, enhances energy reliability, allows community members to be part of renewable energy generation, and saves customers money. We at USDA Rural Development are honored to be a partner in this innovative work.”

Technology improvements have resulted in lower-cost solar panels with double the generating capacity available in Community Solar III compared to the Co-op’s prior community solar projects. The Co-op expects the final purchase price to be around $700 for each 580-watt panel, projected to generate 700 kWh of electricity per year each. On-bill financing will be available for qualified members.  Based on today’s rates, and depending on which rate tier the generation offsets, residential Co-op members who purchase the output from one panel can expect a reduction on their electric bill of between $40 and $70 per year. Solar generation varies widely each month due to seasonal weather conditions, and solar project owners should expect their actual monthly generation and bill credits to fluctuate accordingly.

Members who are interested in purchasing generation from Community Solar III when it becomes available should visit Community Solar – Flathead Electric Cooperative to place their name on the interest list.

Courtney Stone

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