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081916-mis-nws-solar-panels

Mark Hayden, left, general manager for Missoula Electric Cooperative, and Tim Koehn of Jordan Solar stand with a solar panel at Frenchtown Elementary School recently. The school will soon have 184 panels installed on its roof in a partnership with MEC.

FRENCHTOWN – Pardon the French, but shouldn’t they be called soleil panels out here?

They’re bursting out all over – 18 solar panels at the high school on the north side of Interstate 90 and, by the time classes open on Aug. 25 at the elementary school on the south side, there should be 184 more up on that rooftop.

“As far as we know it’s the first of its kind in Montana,” Mark Hayden, general manager for Missoula Electric Cooperative (MEC), said of the utility-school solar partnership.

The co-op, which serves much of Missoula County outside the city limits and parts of surrounding counties, waded into the solar business late last year when it installed a 50-kilowatt solar garden south of Lolo.

For $700, customers could purchase monthly credits for electricity produced by one panel for the next 25 years. Among the takers was Missoula County, which bought 20 of the 176 panels. The city of Missoula reserved 10 more for its wastewater treatment plant on the MEC grid.

In fact, Hayden said, demand far exceeded those 176 panels.

“The board subsequently determined to look for a site for a second array elsewhere in the county,” he said. “One of the first places we looked was at various schools, because we have a number of partnerships through our education program and it was a natural fit.”

It fit no place better than Frenchtown. The 18 awning panels at the high school went online earlier this summer. Last summer the school board approved installation of 184 panels – about 51 kilowatts' worth – on the roofs of the first- and second-grade wing and the third-grade classrooms at the elementary school.

“The discussion basically centered around, first of all, the educational partnership that we’ve had for a lot of years with Missoula Electric Co-op and then looking at a project that would benefit the community,” Frenchtown Schools superintendent Randy Cline said. “Renewable energy is a very interesting area as far as developing educational units around for our students, making them more aware of the possibilities.”

Frenchtown elementary school teachers spent Monday training how to teach solar. The next day junior high and high school teachers did the same thing. 

“They made solar ovens and solar-powered cars, all the different things you can do with solar built around that project,” Cline said.

The workshops were part of a Bonneville Environmental Foundation grant that funded the panels at the high school.

The Bonneville Power Administration is one of the major funders of the environmental foundation and also provides MEC with 95 percent of its electricity. The foundation supplied a $50,000 grant for the Lolo installation, but that wasn’t available for the array at Frenchtown grade school.

“That was one of the drivers behind the roof-mounted system,” which cuts installation costs, Hayden said.

MEC's 184-panel solar garden at the elementary school will cost around $100,000 to install. It's drawing again from a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of up to $27,000 through USDA's Renewable Energy for America program.

Hayden said the Frenchtown rooftop panels will also cost $700 each, which covers not only part of the installation price but operation and maintenance beyond that.

Cline said by going solar the school district gets “a little bit of a break” on its utility bill.

“We have one solar panel,” he said. “But most of it goes back to our partnership with Missoula Electric Co-op, how successful that been, and also the fact that we’ve always been innovative in our school district.

“This is the first one that’s been done. That’s the way we like to move forward.”

MEC customers approve. Hayden said already the output from more than 90 of the 184 new panels is spoken for.

The installation will be made by Tim Koehn of Jordan Solar in Charlo, which also worked on the Lolo array. Work this week was delayed when the panels were held up in the shipping process. Koehn said he’ll probably start mounting them early next week on brackets that are already prepared. He estimated it'll take two or three days to put them all but, and it’ll be another week before they start converting sun rays to electricity for Missoula Electric Cooperative.

The MEC solar projects are among many around the state, as the price of panels plummets and utilities scramble to meet demand. Ravalli Electric Co-op's solar garden of 176 panels near Woodside went online this spring. Flathead Electric Cooperative recently launched a community solar utility network that will be powered by 365 solar panels on Whitefish Stage Road.

Installation has begun on a solar plant experiment by the city of Bozeman, Montana State University and NorthWestern Energy. The power company is investing up to $1 million on that, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian