Here comes the sun: Fergus Electric embarks on community solar project

By: 
DEB HILL
Managing Editor

Fergus Electric plans to embark on installing a community solar array this year. The panels will be purchased by FEC members and installed at the company's headquarters.

This summer Fergus Electric Cooperative hopes to enter the renewable energy age. Roughly 90 people attended a presentation Wednesday evening to hear about FEC’s proposal to build a community solar project. If the project moves forward, Fergus will be only the fourth electric cooperative in Montana with community solar, and the first in the central and eastern regions of the state.

FEC General Manager Scott Sweeney said the cooperative hopes to build an array of solar panels at the company’s headquarters east of Lewistown on Highway 87. FEC members will be offered the opportunity to purchase panels. For each panel a member purchases, the energy generated will be credited to the member’s electric bill.

Sweeney said he is optimistic the project will move ahead this year.

“We plan to start selling in April and May,” he said. “If there is good interest by the end of May, we could go forward this year, with construction of the project in late summer or fall. I’m thinking we will get enough interested members to do it.”

Sweeney attributed the proposal to encouragement by FEC members, especially Roger and Laurie Lohrer, who were interested in a program whereby the cooperative would credit homeowners for energy generated by alternative systems.

“At our last executive retreat, board members said they were hearing from more and more people interested in renewable energy and energy security,” Sweeney said. “We also did a survey of more than 400 FEC members, with pretty good interest.

“And the Lohrers did call me a lot, especially Roger,” Sweeney added, laughing.

The project timetable suggests bidding could be as early as July, with the project built in September and operating by October or November, Sweeney said. He estimated the array would have a 20-year lifespan, with all operations and maintenance done by Fergus Electric employees. The size of the array depends on the response from FEC members.

While the price per panel is still unknown, Sweeney thought it would come in between $600 and $900.

“We are hoping to allow members to pay $250 down and the rest when the array is built,” he said.

“Cost will be driven by how many of our members want to buy panels,” he said. “If you are interested, tell a board member, or sign up by calling us, or through the Fergus Electric website starting Monday, Feb. 27.”

The FEC website is www.ferguselectric.coop.

 

 

Why community solar?

Wednesday’s speakers touted improvements in the design of solar systems and decreases in the cost of solar-generated energy as reasons why energy companies are more and more interested in developing their own solar arrays.

“The typical solar panel, roughly 5 feet by 3 feet in size, can generate 250 to 300 watts of power,” said Orion Thornton of Onsite Energy Inc. in Bozeman. “Four can generate about a kilowatt of energy. To offset 100 percent of the energy used by the average Montana home, you need 7.26 kilowatts.”

Those panels must be attached to a home or property, Thornton said, and in some locations that is not feasible. The homeowner must bear the cost of installation, energy storage and maintenance for a private system.

“The value of a community solar project is people can buy into a centralized system with increased economies of scale,” Thornton added. “There is a low entry level cost and you don’t need to own your own home – even renters can participate.”

According to Thornton, 25 states have at least one community solar project.

“Solar is a big industry,” he said. “There are over 260,000 solar workers in the U.S., as of 2016, and one in 50 new jobs that year were in the solar industry.”

Dan Rogers, spokesman for the Missoula Electric Cooperative, said under their program, the co-op owns the panels and sells the output to its members. MEC’s 50-kilowatt solar array was installed in 2015.

“Our members are like subscribers to this service,” Rogers said. “Their bills show the energy consumed, the energy generated and the net.”

Wednesday’s seminar was sponsored by the Central Montana Resource Council, Montana Farmers Union, MSU Extension, Fergus County and Fergus Electric Cooperative.

 

 

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