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Todd Hoitsma, owner of Liquid Solar Systems, discusses his company's water heating solutions with a group as part of the Montana Clean Energy fair in Caras Park. Hoitsma discussed how solar heating can be effectively used to reduce energy costs in domestic as well as commercial applications.

Ever wonder how a solar panel gets enough sunlight to create electricity in the dead of winter?

If so, you’re not alone. At Montana Renewable Energy Association’s Clean Energy Fair on Saturday, more than 1,500 people got their own renewable energy questions answered by an array of clean energy experts, discussing everything from solar panels to wind energy.

Dan Brandborg of SBS Solar in Missoula has fielded thousands of these types of questions since he got his start in solar energy 33 years ago “way before it was cool.”

But as he explained, that’s the purpose of the energy fair: to educate the populace about cleaner and cheaper alternatives to traditional energy sources fueled by power plants.

“We’ve got to make some huge shifts on how we power people,” he said.

Fair attendees chose from about a dozen topics ranging from ground-source heat pumps and solar hot water to electric vehicles, and financing and incentives for clean energy.

“There was just a fabulous array of information and resources,” explained fair attendee Alexis Volkerts. “Kathi Montgomery provided an enormous amount of information on tax incentives and tax credits.”

“(Each) one of the workshops has been just fascinating,” she added.

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State policy restricting renewable energy was also discussed in detail, added MREA’s Fair Coordinator Christopher Borton.

“I think overall the feedback I get is that people learn more about what’s going on with renewable energy and in the country,” he said.

Borton explained that because of current state statutes, neighbors can’t invest in renewable energy equipment together. Instead, clean-energy seekers have to purchase the expensive equipment on their own to fuel their own homes.

But the equipment is becoming increasingly affordable and as the price for equipment like solar panels drops, its popularity rises. Now, with the tax incentives and government rebates, clean energy consumers can see a payback in their initial investment in energy equipment in eight years. Only 15 years ago, when MREA was founded, clean-energy consumers could expect to see a return on their investment in 50 years, Borton said.

Historically, the main driver in investing in clean energy has been people’s interest in protecting the environment and their concern about climate change. And that concern remains as a main incentive for people to use clean energy.

“Every watt (consumers) get from sunlight is one watt that they won’t have to buy from a coal-powered power plant,” Borton explained.

The fair moved from Butte last year to Missoula’s own Caras Park this year, after Butte’s fair saw only about 150 attendees, Brandborg said. Borton said he was pleased with the turnout in Missoula and said they will be bringing the Clean Energy Fair back to Caras Park next September.

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Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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