LOLO – For $700, you too can buy a piece of the sun for Christmas if you get your electricity from Missoula Electric Cooperative.

Urged by its customers and propelled by a couple of substantial grants, MEC has installed the first half of what will be an array of 176 solar panels in a small pen south of Lolo.

The rest of the south-facing panels will be in place by early December, and all should be collecting rays by the end of the year, MEC spokesman Dan Rogers said last week.

Member subscribers can sign on for shares of the 50-kilowatt solar facility. It’s just a nibble off the co-op’s power grid, 95 percent of which comes via the Bonneville Power Administration’s Columbia River federal hydrosystem from dams such as those at Hungry Horse and Libby.

“We’ve had a model that we’ve used for 79 years, and electricity doesn’t change. It’s just electrons flowing,” Rogers said. “So when you get to see something new, to me it’s pretty exciting.”

Solar “gardens” are a new frontier for area electric cooperatives, one that’s being explored in an even bigger way – 100 kilowatts – by the Flathead Electric Cooperative. It recently launched Montana’s first such garden north of Kalispell on Whitefish Stage Road.

Ravalli Electric Cooperative is in the process of selling panels for a 25-kilowatt solar generator to be built near its Woodside substation.

In all three cases, subscribers are guaranteed the supplementary electricity for 25 years.

The co-op facilities are much smaller than the 3-megawatt solar farm an out-of-state company, Cypress Creek Renewables, plans to build east of Missoula on Bandmann Flat and at several other locations in Montana. That power will be sold to NorthWestern Energy and placed on its regionwide grid.

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General manager Mark Hayden said Missoula Electric polled its members a few months ago to learn what direction they wanted their co-op to go.

“One of the responses that came back repeatedly to us is Missoula Electric Cooperative needs to look to the future, and renewable energy investment is one of the things they’re interested in,” Hayden said. “Beyond that, it’s a great opportunity for us to learn, understand, figure out the capabilities of solar and how we can add value to our customers with it.”

MEC received a $50,000 grant from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of more than $32,000 to plunge into the solar world. The USDA contribution is through its Renewable Energy for America program.

Rogers said without the two grants, the cost to solar customers would work out to $3.08 per watt. With them, the price drops to $2.47 – “far below what the typical solar rooftop installation would run.”

“This isn’t going to take the place of the guy on the hill who’s got the house that’s south-facing and he’s just determined he’s going to put up panels,” said Rogers. “This really fits in well for, say, the person who’s renting and can’t install panels, or the person who has a bunch of trees on the south side of their property and they don’t want to cut them down, or their house just isn’t suited for it.”

Solar power through the wires makes sense, for instance, to Missoula Electric customers on Rock Creek, where exposure to the sun is limited. The Lolo solar garden itself is in the heart of the broad Bitterroot Valley, where the sun shines most of the day, if it shines at all.

MEC provides electricity to the more rural reaches of Missoula and surrounding counties, from Superior on the west to Beavertail Hill on the east, and from north of the Lake County line in the Swan Valley to Bass Creek south of Florence on the south.

The larger solar farm planned by Cypress Creek Renewables will have tracking panels that follow the sun’s path. Rogers said equipment and maintenance costs make that option unfeasible for MEC.

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The $700 cost of a solar share takes into account future expenses such as tax increases.

“It’s a real good number,” said Rogers. “Basically, we want it to be so that the members 12 years down the road don’t get a surprise like, ‘Hey, by the way, we need another $50 from you.’ ”

Unlike Flathead Electric, Montana’s largest electric co-op, MEC won’t be selling individual solar panels but rather the output from those panels.

“That allowed us to take advantage of the grant funding, and it’s just easier to give people an all-inclusive price and let them know they don’t have to worry about anything down the road,” said Rogers.

No shares have been sold yet, but that’ll happen soon enough. The original target date of mid-December was moved up when USDA representatives asked to present MEC with a plaque at the Lolo array for its participation on Nov. 5.

“The first thing we were going to do was notify all our members via their bill. We weren’t anticipating to even be talking to members at this point, but because of that kind of soft rollout we’re kind of ahead of schedule.”

There are already signs of interest in subscribing among board members and MEC employees, and even some customers who’ve heard about the project.

“It seems like people are excited,” Rogers said. “It would be great to think that we’d have more interest than capacity, so we could see if there’s opportunity to do more.”

If there is, Hayden said, solar gardens could be planted anywhere in the system.

“Community solar is new to western Montana, but it’s not new to the country,” Hayden said. “There are many electric utilities across the nation that have used this same model, so a lot of the legwork has been done in terms of understanding how to roll out a successful community solar system.”

Hayden said he is confident solar will work for Missoula Electric.

“It’s a really, really great fit for the cooperative model.”

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