City Life Community Center is getting into the energy-efficiency game after landing a $50,000 grant to install 72 solar panels atop the center’s roof.

City Life director Bob Grace was joined by 10 volunteers and a crew from SBS Solar on Saturday to install the 23,400-watt solar array. Nine tons of ballast ensures the panels won't leave the roof. The only change to the physical roof was two small holes drilled to conduit the energy into the building.

The grant came from Northwestern Energy's Universal System Benefits program. The USB charge you see on your electric bill every month pays for universal system benefits program. According to a March 2015 report to the Legislature, Northwestern Energy electric customers paid more than $9.5 million in USB charges in 2014.

Donations from local businesses – Buffnetworks, Fister Electric, Western States Rental, Beaudette Consulting Engineers, Anderson's Masonry and volunteers – brought the funding to more than $60,000. 

"I do like the idea of renewable energy," Grace said. "We have a great big, flat roof in a sunny area. So, what better place to put a solar array than a big open space and a big open roof that's sitting there collecting sunlight?"

One of the panels sits on the northwest corner of the roof, the other on the southern end. Each is positioned at a 15-degree tilt. The panels are expected to provide about 9 percent of the building's electricity needs starting this month.

"It's been a whirlwind up here," Grace said as the crews wrapped up the installation that took about five hours of their Saturday.

There also will be an interactive information station. It's a way for City Life to monitor the efficiency of each panel at any time, and figure out fixes they may need to do.

The solar arrays tie into the grid, he said, but the energy doesn't leave the building.

"We designed the system to the loads of the building and the budget we had," said SBS Solar photovoltaic energy specialist Dan Brandborg.

Solar energy continues to gain steam, especially in Missoula, he said. Right now, there are five solar companies in the Missoula area alone – "and everyone's busy."

Northwestern Energy demand side management engineer June Pusich-Lester said there are 306 residences schools, commercial buildings, etc., with solar arrays in Missoula. That's only second to Bozeman, which has 393.

The solar panels don't require batteries and offer instantaneous results.

"But in another year, with the Tesla technology coming along, that'll make it viable to have a battery-powered system," Brandborg said.

Those would help store energy for power outages and, he said, some area customers have said they're on board to store power in case of a terrorist attack.

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