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'Solar Guy' Shines A Light On Renewable Energy

Brad Van Wert, also known as Solar Guy, gives a speech at a brewery in Kalispell, Montana earlier this month.
Nicky Ouellet
Brad Van Wert, also known as Solar Guy, gives a speech at a brewery in Kalispell, Montana earlier this month.

If you ever go on Facebook, you may have noticed a new face popping up in your newsfeed. Solar Guy, or Brad Van Wert, is the face of Charge Montana, a coalition of renewable energy advocates, to get Montanans excited about solar energy, and more specifically, legislation that affects the cost of electricity.

"I'm solar guy, and I'm here in Kalispell to talk to you guys about solar power," Van Wert says.

On a recent Wednesday, 150 people squeezed into Kalispell Brewery to hear Solar Guy’s talk.

"How many people cut firewood to warm your homes, or grow garden, or walk in mountains looking for elk? This is what we do. this is part of our spirit of independence as Montanans, this homegrown energy," he says.

He runs through a brief presentation about projections of growth for the solar power industry, and then gets down to lobbying. Part of his spiel in Kalispell, which he also gave in Bozeman, Billings, Missoula, and Great Falls, is asking people to write postcards to Governor Bullock in support of solar power. His statewide brewery chats will culminate on Thursday with a so-called Solar Jobs and Energy Freedom Rally at the capitol.

"The government and some of the stuff happening right now, they're creating limitation, they're boxing us in," Van Wert says.

He is particularly concerned about proposed legislation that would revise the state’s current regulations regarding net metering — which allows people with home solar panels to sell excess energy they generate to utility companies.

Right now, net metered energy customers in Montana are credited the full “retail rate”: If you produce one unit of energy, you get paid exactly as much as the utility company charges you for one unit you buy from them, which Van Wert says is a fair deal.

One of the bills gaining traction is Senate Bill 78, introduced by Keith Regier, a Republican from Kalispell. Senate Bill 78 would allow utility companies to pay a significantly lower rate for electricity they buy from people  with home solar systems. Instead of paying retail, they’d buy it for their “avoided cost": the price the utility would pay for electricity from another source, like coal or hydropower.

Bob Rowe, president of NorthWestern Energy, says his company's customers should have to pay the full retail rate for home-generated power.

"If customer wants to self-generate, we want to be in a position where we can work with that customer. The question though is what is fair to those customers, and what is fair to other customers," Rowe says.

He says the current rate for net metering doesn't take into account the cost of maintaining infrastructure that connects self-powered homes to the grid — in other words, he says net metered customers are currently getting more than they’re giving.

"It's pretty hard to argue that the full retail price is the appropriate price," Rowe says.

He says other sources — like hydropower — just make more sense in the long run in terms of affordability, sustainability and reliability.

"The challenge is to do the things that make the most sense to move forward, and in many cases those are going to be on a larger, system scale than a smaller scale," he says.

An interim committee established by the 2015 legislature set out to study net metering in Montana. It outlined a variety of rate setting tools, but didn’t recommend a specific structure for how net metered customers should be reimbursed by utility companies.

Nearly 20 bills have been drafted this year to regulate net metering. That includes House Bill 504, introduced by Missoula-Democrat Bryce Bennett on Friday, which would allow larger net metered systems and provide for community solar projects.

Back at the brewery in Kalispell, Brad Van Wert, AKA Solar Guy, says he supports this legislation.

"We're gonna push for a "jobs and freedom package" that's good for Montana that allows this industry to grow," he says.

House Bill 504 - the “jobs and freedom package” - had its first hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers have not yet voted on it. Senate Bill 78, which would lower net metering reimbursement rates, passed out of the Senate last week, the House has not yet voted on it.

The Solar Jobs and Energy Freedom Rally will be held on Thursday at noon at the Capitol in Helena.