Four miles east of Roundup, Tim and Kathy Crawford have installed a 25-kilowatt solar electric system to help pump water out of the Musselshell River and irrigate adjacent fields of barley and hay crops. And they’d like to show it off.
That’s why Pheasant Farms – the name of their ranch – is hosting an open house at the site at 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, with drinks and food treats an hour later at the Crawfords’ nearby ranch house. (The address, if you’re thinking of attending this event, is 17341 U.S. 12 E.)
The Crawfords would especially like farmers and ranchers in the area, who are dismayed by the high and rising cost of powering irrigation systems with electricity, to come view the 180-foot-long array of photovoltaic collectors, to hear about costs and incentives and payback times, and to think about investing in clean renewable energy while saving money over the long term.
Solar costs rapidly falling
One reason the Crawfords have been drawn to do this is the cost of solar electric systems: It’s been falling rapidly over the past three years. On their other ranch, in the Gallatin Valley near Belgrade, they have an older, 18-kilowatt solar electric system that significantly lowers power bills in their home there. Those solar collectors, however, did cost significantly more than these newer ones along the Musselshell.
Another reason for their decision is a U.S. Department of Agriculture rural renewable energy assistance program called REAP, which makes loans or outright grants to help finance a wide variety of systems including solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and hydropower, as well as cost-effective energy efficiency improvements.
An important third reason is that their electricity supplier, Fergus Electric Co-op, which like many REAs in the nation has balked for years at integrating renewable energy systems into its power grid, has changed its collective mind at last and now is allowing net metering.
Net metering is a single meter that measures the difference between total consumption and total generation of electricity by a customer who has an operating renewable energy system feeding the power line.
NorthWestern Energy (NWE), Montana’s largest investor-owned, publicly regulated utility, has a top limit of 50 kilowatts for any solar, wind, hydro or other renewable energy net metering system its customers install.
Many Montanans would like to see that limit raised, but 50 kw looks generous compared to the net metering maximums now allowed by rural electric co-ops in Montana. Often these co-ops restrict their net metering customers to a mere 10 kilowatts of capacity.
To its credit, Fergus Electric responded to requests from some of its members for a higher limit and set its maximum at 25 kilowatts.
The exact capacity of the Crawfords’ system - 24.96 kilowatts - is a sliver under that Fergus Electric maximum, but Tim Crawford told me he’d consider expanding his system to as much as 50 kW if and when Fergus raises its limit (to match the current net metering capacity allowed by NWE).
The numbers: cost and payback
In the meantime, here are some “gross” (to use Crawford’s term) cost and payback figures for his Musselshell Valley system. The installed cost came close to $80,000. Subtract nearly $20,000 from that, thanks to a grant from the U.S, Department of Ag REAP program, and the up-front cost comes down to approximately $60,000.
Crawford says his yearly power bills for irrigating from three and a half to “no more than four” months average “about $6,000” a year. While the power draw from the Fergus Electric grid occurs only for that irrigating period, the new solar system will be feeding power into that grid every day for 12 months of the year. (Even on cloudy days some sunlight leaks through to generate electricity.)
The best-case scenario would be that this system, running year-round, would cancel out the summer irrigation bill. This means that in ten years (10 times $6,000) the system would be paid back, after which, Crawford says, “we’d have free electricity.”
(There’s more: if a federal renewable energy tax credit kicks in — at 30 percent of the out-of-pocket system cost, separate from and in addition to the REAP grant of 25 percent of the project cost — the actual payback time could be fall as low as six years!)
Power prices may rise
However, Crawford quickly points out that:
• Electricity prices from Fergus may go up from the present 9.75 cents per kilowatt-hour (we’ll discuss that in more detail in a moment);
• This solar system – even running all year – may not cover all those water pumping costs (the installer’s conservative estimate of “annual energy consumption offset” is 74 percent);
• While no trees or structures shade this system, which performs in virtually all temperatures (stated range is minus-40 to plus-90 degrees Fahrenheit), and while the solar modules are resistant to damage from hail and wind, and can easily be brushed or washed off when snow or dust or debris accumulates on them, still, the system’s efficiency could decline by as much as 20 percent over the next 25 years. Such systems will probably be generating power for much longer than that, but they typically are guaranteed for 25 years.
A trusted contractor
On Site Energy of Bozeman was the installer, first of Crawford’s solar electric system in the Gallatin Valley, and now of this one. Crawford is aware that there are other solar installers closer to Roundup. However, he’d had a positive experience with Orion Thornton, On Site’s owner-operator, and he knew that Thornton had recently installed a 15-kilowatt solar electric, net-metered system for another customer of Fergus Electric Co-op, so he went with On Site Energy again.
I spoke with Orion Thornton in July, as he and two co-workers were fastening 96 Suniva Optimus modules (that’s a registered trademark name) onto a steel rack planted in cement footings. Each 260-watt module measures roughly 6 feet 6 inches tall by 3 feet 10 inches wide, and each one is less than 2 inches thick.
The three men were placing them meticulously, side by side on the long rack, in two rows of 48 modules. The array faces south (obviously) and is tilted at an angle of 35 degrees.
River running high
The river was running fairly high that day, though well below the nearby steep bank. Still, my first question related to the Musselshell River flood of 2011, a historically unprecedented flood when the river crested during two separate surges about two feet higher than ever previously measured.
Thornton said floodwaters that high would just reach the base of the cement footings of the solar array. (Crawford later confirmed this.) Floodwaters would have to rise another two feet or more to reach the bottom edge of the collectors.
As for high winds, Thornton said the solar array is “engineered to withstand winds of 120 mph.
Thornton’s two helpers – Jay Moore and Mark Hansen - were not much younger than he. Both were interns out of the technical college associated with the University of Montana — now called Missoula College — where they were studying energy technology. Both Moore and Hansen had some prior hands-on experience with solar energy — solar thermal if not solar electric systems. Both are looking for careers installing and maintaining renewable energy or energy conservation systems.
Plenty of business
Hansen and Moore were contracted to put in 90 hours working for On Site Energy, for which they would earn two credit hours at the College. Thornton pays some of their expenses, such as food and travel, and said they might end up working with him longer than those 90 hours - for which, he said, he would “make it right” financially for them.
I asked Orion Thornton if he also does solar thermal systems, for space heating or pre-heating water. He says he knows something about them, but he prefers to focus on solar electric — and he seems to stay busy doing that.
I asked both Thornton and Crawford about the 18-kilowatt system at Crawfords’ ranch in the Gallatin Valley. It is engineered to track the sun in its path across the sky, and that allows it to gather in sunlight more efficiently.
But it also means moving parts, and both Thornton and Crawford acknowledge that moving parts mean more maintenance, and occasional breakdowns. (In this regard, sun-tracking solar power is like wind power.)
Stationary systems preferable
Both say the price of solar electric panels — whether manufactured overseas or here in the U.S. — has come down so significantly that it makes more sense to design a stationary system and simply buy more panels to make up for the lower efficiency.
The Crawford solar array is located just a few feet from the Fergus Electric power pole. The inverter that transforms direct current electricity from the sun into alternating current for the grid is affixed to the base of that pole.
Renewable energy advocates are happy that co-ops like Fergus are finally acknowledging the good sense of allowing their widely dispersed customers to generate more and more of their own power.
Fergus was one of the original five co-ops that got together with the city of Great Falls to try to build a 250-megawatt coal-fired power plant east of Great Falls, to be called the Highwood power plant, after a nearby range of mountains.
Thermal power plants use water
Great Falls was lured into this scheme because that city has water rights to the Missouri River, and thermal plants of any kind, fossil fuel or nuclear, require large amount of water not only to boil to steam to spin turbines but also for cooling purposes.
That consortium of five co-ops and one city formed a generating and transmission cooperative — Southern Montana Electric G&T — which failed to garner enough capital to build a coal-fired plant (a federal government program that had helped co-ops finance other coal-fired plants around the country decided not to finance this one).
The Southern G&T, as it became known, ended up borrowing money from two large insurance companies (Prudential and Modern Woodman) to finance much smaller (about 40-megawatt) natural gas power plant they also called the Highwood power plant. That plant was built, tested (it works), but never has been brought online. Natural gas, as relatively cheap as it is around the country, was still too expensive a fuel for the Southern to buy.
Decentralized systems better
Southern G&T is now in bankruptcy proceedings. One of the co-ops, Yellowstone Valley in the area around Billings, managed to extract itself from Southern G&T, as did the city of Great Falls, so the remaining four co-ops – Fergus, Beartooth, Mid-Yellowstone and Tongue River – are hoping that the bankruptcy process somehow can “bring all the parties together to pay the creditors and keep electric rates reasonably priced” (the words of Scott Sweeney, manager of Fergus Electric, in the September issue of Rural Montana, the co-op’s magazine).
It may be difficult for the remaining four co-ops in Southern G&T to keep those electric rates down, but at least the move of these formerly “distribution-only” co-ops” into power generation sets a precedent: supporting systems like the Crawfords’ new solar array east of Roundup.
Tim Crawford said to me, “Instead of trying to build large-scale centralized thermal power plants, they should have been investing in small-scale decentralized wind and solar facilities installed by their own members.”