POLEBRIDGE – Will Hammerquist was getting tired of being the guy who couldn’t hold his peace during weddings at the historic Polebridge Mercantile.
“They’d be about to say the vows, and I’d have to yell ‘Wait – let me turn off the generator,’ ” Hammerquist said with a laugh. “It would be making all this noise and stink when people were trying to have a beautiful ceremony.”
That ceased to be a problem last week when Hammerquist lit up a 30-kilowatt solar system that now provides most of the electricity for this crossroads on the edge of Glacier National Park 24 miles shy of the Canadian border. Now almost the entire commercial center of Polebridge relies on the sun for lights, refrigeration, computers, communications, coffee-making and cash registers. Only the ovens cooking the Polebridge Merc’s famed bearclaws still burn fossil fuel – propane, to be exact.
That diesel generator burned about a gallon of fuel an hour, 20 hours a day during the peak summer months.
“That old generator was loud and sent up diesel fumes all day,” Hammerquist said. “Solar is silent and has no fumes. We’re excited for what it means for Glacier Park and our carbon footprint.”
The Merc has had a 5-kilowatt solar system for several years, feeding off an array of 24 solar panels mounted on poles just west of the building. The expansion added 87 more panels with greater generation capacity on the roof of a new barn. The barn’s gambrel roof conveniently matches the dramatic angle changes of seasonal sunshine, with the upper, flatter surface perfect for summer and the lower, steeper portion catching winter light.
“It took about a year from planning and drawing things out, to preparing the grant application, to building in the barn,” Hammerquist said. “That took about a month. It was a lot less complicated than the solar system.”
The heart of the solar system sits inside the barn.
Ranks of junction boxes line one wall, feeding sunshine harvest data to monitors in one direction and actual electricity down to big red batteries on the floor. Putting the gear here got it out of the dusty Merc building (the monitors work best in clean environments) and removed a fire hazard from the century-old landmark.
“We analyzed how much power Polebridge would need for a day at peak summer load,” said Jeff Arcel of Aeon Energy in Whitefish. “Then we designed a system that met what we believe will be his needs for the foreseeable future.”
Arcel helped Hammerquist take advantage of some expanded state and federal assistance programs to fund the project. That included the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program, which grants up to 25 percent of the cost of renewable energy generation for almost any small business or agricultural producer.
“In Montana, that means practically the whole state except the cities of Missoula, Great Falls and Billings,” said Brent Donnelly, business and cooperative program director for the USDA Rural Development Office in Bozeman. "And if you’re on the outskirts of town, we can work with you.”
Donnelly called the Polebridge Merc a prime example of a project that might not have happened without REAP assistance. In addition to the grant money, USDA can partner with local banks to provide government loan guarantees of up to $25 million, which lowers the interest rate for borrowers. It dovetails with a Montana Department of Environmental Quality renewable energy loan program. And a federal tax credit allows the builder to deduct up to 30 percent of the project’s cost.
In all, about 55 percent of the Polebridge solar system got paid for through federal assistance, with loan guarantees making the decision even easier for Hammerquist. In addition to lighting the Merc, the power system will feed refrigerators and ice-makers at the next-door Northern Lights Saloon and four rental cabins.
“They start the bakery at 4 a.m. and the Merc doesn’t have sun until 7 or 9, so they rely on the batteries,” Arcel said. “It’s an off-grid system, which is kind of like making water in the desert. There’s only so many places for electricity to go – either load or batteries. But he’s going to have so much power there, he can put in electric heat or run a hot tub. They’re talking about adding a solar-thermal bathhouse and greenhouse. It’s a new day for Polebridge.”