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Solar power installations continue dropping in price, pay off in under ten years in MT

Dan Boyce

The price of solar panels continues to drop, making them a more reasonable option for households.

Montanans are taking notice; solar adoption rates have been rising in the last five years.

A solar project just switched on in January at Helena’s River Rock Residences, a low-income senior housing complex operated by the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Development Corporation.

It’s one of the biggest solar projects in the state. RMDC had a little extra wiggle room in the budget after finishing the complex last summer, so they put solar panels on all 10 buildings— 338 total panels.

Jackson Isbell owns and operates Solar Montana. He installed the solar panels at the River Rock Residences. He expects the panels to pay for about half of the annual electricity costs for the seniors living in these apartments. That’s due to net-metering, something Montana has had in place since 1999.

“Say you’re producing more power in the day than you’re using,” Isbell said, “that power’s gonna get pushed out to the grid and, in effect, it’s going to credit your bill.”

State law says Montana’s utilities have to take power from small power producers like rooftop solar panels. They have to deduct the cost of that power from what that ratepayer owes on an annual basis.

*Kyla Maki with the Montana Environmental Information Center said net-metering has contributed to an expansion of solar all over the country. The utilities which have to buy that power are not all thrilled, sponsoring legislation to cut net metering in many states.

“You’re seeing utilities push back against that growth, against the ability of customers to be able to install their own power,” Maki said.

“We certainly understand people’s desires to save money on their energy bills and we support those efforts,” said Butch Larcombe, a spokesman for Montana’s largest electric utility, NorthWestern Energy.

He said net-metering does bring up some issues. What rate should Northwestern pay for people’s rooftop solar power? There are concerns the power purchased from those panels shifts the cost burden to everyone else.

“Just because some people put up solar panels on their house, does it affect people down the street and their utility costs?” he asked.

Solar advocates argue costs still go down for the average ratepayer as more solar may avoid the need for utilities to build new expensive power plants in the future.

As for next year’s legislative Session, Larcombe said it’s too early to know what NorthWestern’s plans will be as far as bills about net-metering.

Back at the River Rock Residences, Solar Montana owner Jackson Isbell said he’s hoping for his busiest year yet. He said the price of solar panels have gone down 60 percent in the last few years. Panels with a 20 year lifespan are now paying for themselves in under a decade. A federal tax credit cuts 30 percent of the cost of solar panels right off the top—that lasts until 2016.

“This is not a luxury item, this is something that every Montana homeowner can afford. When you look at terms of return on investment and everything else, this is a pretty safe bet,” he said.

As long as the market for solar continues looking like it does now.


*The radio version of this story incorrectly says Kyla Maki works for the Montana Environmental Law Center.

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