111615 Lolo Solar Panels1-tm.JPG

A dusting of snow covers Missoula Electric Cooperative’s new solar array south of Lolo last week. Once complete, the array will house 176 panels and produce 50 kilowatts of electricity.

TOMMY MARTINO photos, Missoulian

Missoula County is the new owner of 10 solar panels, or rather the electricity those panels will produce for the next 25 years.

Commissioners Cola Rowley, Jean Curtiss and Stacy Rye voted unanimously Tuesday morning to purchase the panels from Missoula Electric Cooperative’s new solar garden south of Lolo.

The rural co-op serves the county outside the city of Missoula. The county courthouse, administrative building and jail get their power from NorthWestern Energy. But the county has a long list of electric-powered facilities in MEC land, from the Lolo sewer and water systems to pump houses at El Mar Estates on Mullan Road to street lights and the fire department in Frenchtown.

MEC unveiled its 50-kilowatt solar facility in November and finished installing all 176 panels in January. Its members, including the county, have jumped at the chance to subscribe at $700 a panel – a price that won’t change for 25 years.

The county will tap its general budget for the $7,000.

“It should pay for itself within 20-23 years. That’s if the rates don’t go up,” Rowley said. “So we’re kind of paying for tomorrow’s power at today’s rates in a climate-friendly way.”

It’s a similar rationale for the city of Missoula, which operates its wastewater treatment plant on the Missoula Electric Co-op grid.

Chase Jones, energy conservation coordinator, said the city is also in the process of buying 10 panels.

“It’s small now, but we hope in the future we’ll be able to purchase more,” Jones said. “We hope our support will signal to customers the growing appetite for these clean, renewable energy choices and signal that community solar is a viable model, so it’ll be replicated and we’ll have future opportunities.”

Jones, Rowley and county planning director Pat O’Herren have formed a partnership to explore ways to find alternative energy sources and reduce the carbon footprint in Missoula.

“This is the first step in something we hope will help address concerns of residents relative to climate change,” O’Herren said.

MEC generates 95 percent of its electricity via hydropower, and is offering customers the community-solar alternative to “take 5 percent and go carbon-free.”

The county would have to buy 59 panels and the city 19 to lop off that last 5 percent of consumption from MEC.

“The project was so successful that they only had 20 left for public entities. So they reserved us 10 if we are interested,” Rowley said before Tuesday’s vote was taken. “I think we’re interested.”

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A lot of people on this side of the mountains are interested, as the costs of solar installations plummet.

Last year, the state’s largest rural electric co-op, Flathead Electric Cooperative, completed a 100-kilowatt solar farm – twice the size of the Lolo facility. Ravalli Electric Co-op has plans to double its solar plant after selling all 88 panels for a 25-kilowatt solar plant to be built near its Woodside substation. Now planned to be the same size as Missoula’s, it’s expected to start generating power near the end of April.

A county board approved a zoning exception to Cypress Creek Renewables last fall to build a much larger solar farm on Deer Creek Road east of Missoula. That 3-megawatt facility will feed the NorthWestern Energy grid.

After collaborating with Climate Smart Missoula, the Missoula City Council passed a conservation and climate action plan three years ago with the ultimate target of being carbon neutral by 2025. The interim goals, based on a 2008 baseline, were reductions of 10 percent by 2015, 30 percent by 2017 and 50 percent by 2020.

Jones said the city is in the process of assessing its 2015 numbers and should have them soon. There have long been solar panels installed on the roof of City Hall, and on the downtown parking garage.

The county doesn’t have a formal climate action plan, but a draft growth policy includes goals and objectives to “better manage our resources” with carbon reduction in mind, O’Herren said.

Among them: using green building principles and adopting a green building incentive program for qualifying private sector development projects; encouraging alternative-energy development and use in county facilities and in land-use plans and policies; working with public transit to expand services to Frenchtown, Seeley Lake and other locations; ensuring land-use plans and regulations to accommodate appropriate home-based businesses to reduce vehicle miles traveled; and developing a policy to reduce energy use and waste generation and to encourage recycling efforts.

On a broader scope, the county’s draft growth policy, which will be presented to the public at a planning board hearing March 1, aims at adapting to climate change by “providing efficient and functional communities that encourage compact development patterns; encouraging multi-modal transportation; supporting local agricultural markets and local businesses to minimize vehicle miles traveled; and protecting life and property from floods and wildfires.”

Commissioners said smarter route planning of county vehicles is already reducing gas and emission usage. The county changed its vehicle purchasing policy a few years ago to emphasize fuel efficiency and safety.

County leaders said they, too, would like to purchase more solar panels when they become available from MEC, and they plan to budget for that purpose.

Missoula Electric Co-op’s board last week approved another solar installation. A countywide search is on to find a place to put it, preferably on a roof somewhere.

“The economics of a rooftop installation are much more favorable,” MEC spokesman Dan Rogers said. “This time, we won’t be able to leverage as much partner funding as we did the first time, so rooftop installation will help keep the project affordable and have the same viability as the first one had. “

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Reporter for The Missoulian.