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A local brewery and a community-owned electric cooperative have paired up to offer something many Missoulians might appreciate: Solar energy and free beer.

The Missoula Electric Cooperative is in the process of installing a Community Solar Array at the new Kettlehouse K3 brewery in Bonner, which will open a brand-new taproom to the public early in 2019.

Members of the cooperative can purchase one of the 188 available solar panels and get credited on their electric bill for the energy output of the panel for 25 years. Also, the Kettlehouse will be offering anyone who purchases a panel a membership in their Renew-A-Mug club, which means a free beer at the Bonner taproom every day.

“What we really want to do is provide the access for people who may not be able to (install solar) in their houses,” explained Kettlehouse Brewing co-owner Tim O’Leary. “We have a great south-facing rooftop and what we like to do as a business is bring along the community in our efforts of sustainability.”

A crew from Jordan Solar in Ronan is in the final stages of wiring the project on top of the brewery.

 “One panel puts out approximately 350 kilowatt hours a year,'' explained MEC general manager Mark Hayden. "Members can purchase the output of one or more panels, and that will be credited right off their monthly energy bill.”

But only if they get their power from Missoula Electric. The MEC service area includes rural Missoula County and surrounding counties stretching from Lochsa Lodge in Idaho to Condon. The MEC has 12,000 members and 15,000 meters.

Hayden said one panel at Kettlehouse will cost $650, and will slowly but surely pay for itself in the long run. O’Leary added that someone who comes in for a free beer two or three times a week would pay off the panel even quicker.

“I’m sure people can do the math but a $4 glass of beer once a day, I mean, you’ll see Return On Investment calculators online, this blows that out of the water,” O’Leary said.

Kettlehouse was a partner in MEC's second solar array in Frenchtown, and the first one is south of Lolo. Those two both sold out in a matter of months.

O'Leary said the new taproom will have a display showing how much power is generation by the panels. The average house uses approximately 1,000 kilowatt hours a month.

The whole reason for being out here was to celebrate Montana's recreational environment by being in it and being on the banks of the Blackfoot River,'' O'Leary said. "We obviously want to be good stewards of our chunk of property. I think it's really cool that this piece of property used to have a community vegetable garden and now we have a community electron garden.''

Many people don't own the home they live in or don't have an ideal piece of property for a solar panel, and Hayden said Community Solar Arrays provide access to renewable energy.

“Community solar, the beauty of it is you don’t have to put it on your roof,” Hayden explained. “It’s virtual net-metered, if you will. It comes right off your electric bill.”

He said the vast majority of the MEC’s power comes from renewable sources like hydropower. Fossil fuels like coal, which provides much of the state’s energy, create greenhouse gases when burned for power. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report on Monday saying the planet is on track to hit disastrous global heat levels by 2030 if more measures aren’t taken to wean the world off carbon-based power.

Kettlehouse bought one of the panels and may buy more if they don't sell out. O'Leary said the brewery may expand in the future and install more panels.

“This is the first of many things we want to do to accomplish our audacious plan of becoming a net-zero, carbon-neutral brewery,” O’Leary explained. “It will be probably a lifelong path for us, but I like to say a journey of 1,000 beers starts with the first sip.

"And if you’re not trying you can just throw your hands up in the air and feel hopeless. We want to give ourselves hope and we want to give other people hope that there’s access and opportunity to folks to take that first sip or first step.”

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