While the big push in the current Montana energy scene seems to be full-speed-ahead for coal (strip mined or longwall-mined) and oil (recovered from hydraulically fractured shale deposits deep underground), solar and wind technologies continue to (a) improve in efficiency and cost, (b) keep power bills low for homeowners or businesses employing them, and (c) create local jobs.
That was the message conveyed by Ben Reed, who owns Winpower West, a Billings business that installs and maintains small to moderate size renewable energy systems. Reed led a tour last Thursday, Oct. 4, that was organized by AERO, Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization.
AERO contracts with NorthWestern Energy to conduct such tours, and NWE, in turn, pays for them, and other things, with funds collected from a Universal System Benefit Charge on every customer’s electrical bill.
The USBC charge is tiny. For example, on my last bill I used 377 kilowatt hours over 31 days, paid $43.66 to have this electricity delivered to my house, and my USBC charge was $0.001334 – that’s about one-third of one cent.
Reducing power bills
Customers’ power bills, however, were a focus of this tour. Reed said that, before deregulation in the mid-1990s, Montana had some of the lowest electricity rates in the nation, and “unless you lived too far from a power line” — and if saving money was your chief motivation for wanting to generate your own power with sun or wind — “I’d tell you just pay your bill. But today,” Reed said, “that is no longer the case.”
After deregulation, electric utility rates doubled or tripled while the costs for wind and solar electric systems kept coming down. This trend - coupled with tax credits, low interest loans and other incentives at both federal and state levels – meant that householders did not need to live deep in the woods or far away on the prairie to make connecting directly to the sun or the wind economically feasible.
“The two houses on this tour,” Reed said, “were designed to generate enough solar electricity to offset an entire year of electricity usage.” Under the “net metering” arrangement with the utility, whenever you’re generating more than you are consuming, the meter essentially runs backward. At the end of a year, if you’ve generated as much as you’ve drawn from the system, you owe nothing.
If you generate more than you use, however, this excess does not roll over into the next year. The utility gets those electrons for free. However, the utility hookup means that you do not have to install expensive batteries to store your excess electrons for times when you’re generating none. The utility’s system essentially is your battery.
Energy efficiency first
Both houses, Reed hastened to say, were “very energy efficient.” Weatherizing, insulating, buying energy efficient light bulbs and appliances – this is what you do first. “Most efficiency measures,” Reed said, “have a much shorter payback period than anything else you can do.”
Case in point: the home of Carol and Charles Heath on 513 Rimrock Drive, where the tour began: two rows of solar photovoltaic modules, 10 per row, adorned the south facing roof. Two pine trees between the street and the house did cast some shade, but micro-inverters (instead of one large inverter) governed each module, so that when shade fell across one module it only affected that module, not the entire system.
The Heath’s system has a “nameplate” of 5.2 kilowatts – that’s what it could generate whenever it is operating at an optimal level (full sunlight, no shading). The cost: about $36,000, but this was reduced $12,000 by the current 30 percent federal tax credit (“that’s huge,” said Reed) along with another $500 to $1,000 from the state.
The system was installed Nov. 22, 2011, according to the owner, Chuck Heath.
So how was it performing? Reed pointed to a meter that showed the system had generated 6.92 megawatt hours – that’s 6,920 kilowatt hours – in almost ten and a half months,
Another 300 kWh
With about 48 days to go to its one-year birthday, the system is running a surplus. Reed said, “There’ll be no problem offsetting NWE — another 300 kilowatt hours should do it.
One of the tour participants, Max Milton from Helena, remarked, “In other words, it would have to be very dark for the next six weeks not to generate that much.”
Despite its efficiency, this house is not cheap to run, largely because Heath is a ceramic artist and, while he fires his pottery sometimes with a gas-fired kiln, he uses an electric kiln as well. The solar system had to be large enough to offset that big draw on the power company.
I mentioned that a friend of mine in California, also a potter, benefited from a utility policy of charging less for power use during “off-peak” times, such as the middle of the night. That’s when my friend fires up his electric kiln, saving a lot of money.
The group agreed that such “differential time-of-day pricing” would be a good idea in Montana. But we don’t have it – yet.
An ethical decision
AERO’s executive director, Bryan Von Lossberg, asked Heath why he turned to solar.
“Ethics,” Heath replied, adding that it was fine to save money on power bills, but the primary reason is that clean energy is the way to go. He and Carol had lived in Emerald Hills and had a solar system there.
“We were pleased with that,” he said, “but here we have a better system, more efficient with these micro-inverters.”
Inverters, Reed explained, convert direct current power to alternating current. A “central inverter” manages this conversion at a 0.77 efficiency ratio; micro inverters do it at 0.832 – “6 percent more efficient.”
The owners were not at home at the second solar house, on a low hill west of Billings. Excellent solar access here – no pines to the south of the house – and a larger system, 26 modules (instead of 20 at Heath’s) and a 6.63 kW capacity (instead of 5.2).
Reed had asked the owners, Dan and Charlene Landon, if they had anything to tell the group about their system. “Just say,” said Dan Landon, “that I’m enjoying not paying the power bill.”
Another reading of the cumulative solar electric generation by this system confirmed that the system, over the course of a year, would likely offset NWE’s contribution.
Wind on a hill
The other site we visited was Bob and Mary Wiesner’s home and machine shop in a valley in the hills south of Billings. Their home sits in the valley, but their two wind 10-kilowatt wind generators were spinning on the hill above their home – and this hill would also be the site of a planned array of solar photovoltaic modules.
While they were connected to the utility – not NorthWestern Energy but Yellowstone Valley Rural Electric Cooperative – they also plan to have an extensive battery storage system as back-up.
Reed said that a few years ago, if people in the Wiesners’ situation had approached him about installing renewable energy, he’d have talked first and foremost about wind. But the last two and a half years have seen a 40 percent to 45 percent drop in the price of solar collectors, worldwide, and now the first thing he talks about is solar.
Solar was not yet operating here, but the wind machines were working well. Another meter reading: 13,529 kWh generated since net metering had begun here. Reed said this place, with its shop complex and large house, consumes a lot of electricity, and he believed that even when both the wind and solar systems were operating they would not offset the entire electrical bill.
Community renewable energy
What this site suggested to Reed and others in the group was a sort of community system. The hill could accommodate many more wind machines and solar collectors than the Wiesners planned to install, so why not let neighbors invest in a large renewable energy system on that hill?
Wiesner, in fact, has told Reed he would allow that to happen. The barrier to this is that the net metering law governing utilities like NorthWestern Energy mandates one renewable energy system for one meter – not one larger system for two or three or 10 meters.
Electric co-ops, said Reed, have not been reluctant to accommodate renewable energy systems, but they are also entities that are owned by their customers, and they are not governed by the same net metering law that governs NWE and other investor-owned utilities. Co-ops can make their own rules. They could, if they chose, allow community systems: one system feeding many meters. Thus, their customers – their owners - would benefit from economies of scale, could afford to buy a few larger and more efficient wind generators, for instance, instead of more smaller but less efficient machines.
Community energy systems are a focus that AERO, according to executive director Von Lossberg, is planning to pursue. Another ongoing project of the group is inviting people to tell their own stories about their energy efficient or renewable energy systems. AERO, which is headquartered in Helena but was born in Billings back in 1974 (I am one of the nine founders of AERO) stages annual meetings one year west of the Rockies and the next year east, back and forth.
Renewable energy contacts
This year’s annual meeting is Oct. 26-28 at the Yogo Inn in Lewistown. You can find out more about AERO, which is also a leader in sustainable agriculture and local food initiatives, by visiting its website: www.aeromt.org.
Ben Reed invites inquiries and encourages conversation about clean energy. His business, Winpower West, is at 1701 First Ave. N. in Billings; phone 252-1302 or 1-888-851-5749; the website is www.winpowerwest.com.
Reed is also a member of the Clean Energy Task Force of the Northern Plains Resource Council, based in Billings, and a member of the business and professional group Montana Renewable Energy Association at www.montanarenewables.org.