(On Thursday, Conor Darby, president of the Montana Renewable Energy Association and a partner in Onsite Energy Systems, aired the following commentary on Montana Public Radio.)
Renewable energy is helping Montana families and businesses take charge of their power supply like never before. There are now more than 1,000 solar arrays, small scale wind turbines and micro-hydro generators producing clean energy in the state. The wholesale cost of solar panels has dropped by two-thirds since 2008. Production from on-site energy systems in Montana has nearly tripled in that time.
I’ve worked in the Montana solar industry for ten years. As a renewable energy business owner and as president of the Montana Renewable Energy Association, I’ve seen this industry take some big steps forward. And yet, arbitrary barriers are limiting the projects that businesses like mine can install, and keeping rooftop solar financially out of reach for many in the state. We’re running into roadblocks at a time when the demand for affordable clean energy, built by Montanans for Montanans, is at an all-time high.
The policy that makes it possible for most people to build their own renewable power supply is called net metering. A net metering contract between a solar homeowner and their electric utility ensures that the customer gets a credit on their power bill for every kilowatt-hour of electricity the customer generates on site but doesn’t use. In turn, the utility takes those extra electrons and sells them to another ratepayer. It’s a fair deal for customers and utilities.
However, monopoly utilities have historically made money by building big power plants and transmission lines—and some see rooftop solar as unwelcome competition and a threat to their profit margin. Utilities around the country are flexing their political muscle to curb rooftop solar and small wind with new fees, taxes and rate hikes that dismantle the fair deal consumers have with net metering.
These attacks on renewable energy ignore the facts. Rooftop solar controls energy costs for everyone by producing energy at times of high demand when power from other sources is most expensive. The energy from net metered systems is generated without costly air pollution and delivered to customers without inefficient transmission line losses. Furthermore, these projects keep our energy dollars in Montana and put people to work.
It’s been over 15 years since Montana’s net metering law was passed. It’s time for an update to ensure a fair and open market for clean energy. Here are a couple of changes worth adopting.
First: lift the cap. Montana law limits the size of a NorthWestern Energy customer’s net-metered solar array, wind turbine or micro-hydro generator at 50 kilowatts. That’s big enough for a home or small business, but an increasing number of projects in Montana are being forced to scale down their renewable energy systems because of this arbitrary cap. Most rural electric co-ops have even lower caps. Meanwhile, forty-one states have a cap higher than 50 kilowatts, allowing better economies of scale and more energy savings.
The second update: allow neighborhood net metering. Multiple states have passed laws in recent years that allow individual utility customers to buy into a community solar array or wind turbine. This way a customer can get the benefits of renewable energy even if they’re a renter or don’t have an ideal site for solar panels or a wind turbine. For example, a church or school could build a rooftop solar array with the support of neighboring residents. Each of the neighboring owners would receive a credit on their power bill according to how much of the project they own, and how much energy it produces each month.
To date, the biggest opponents of on-site energy have, unfortunately, been monopoly utilities. In 2011, NorthWestern Energy backed legislation that would have dismantled the solar industry in Montana as we know it. The Montana Renewable Energy Association joined businesses and individuals from across the state to defend energy choice, and together we successfully defeated the bill. In 2013, MREA supported two proactive bills that would have lowered the cost of on-site energy systems and increased access to rooftop solar. NorthWestern Energy lobbied aggressively to kill both bills.
Another legislative session is coming up. Let’s all speak up in favor of clean energy, and the option to control our energy costs. Ask your state legislator to support energy choice by updating our net metering law.
To learn more, come on out for MREA’s 4th Annual Clean Energy Fair. There will be renewable energy vendors, educational workshops, electric vehicle displays, food, and model solar car races for kids. The fair runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in downtown Missoula’s Caras Park on Saturday, September 20th.
I’m Conor Darby for the Montana Renewable Energy Association and the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO is a grassroots membership organization serving as Montana’s hub for sustainable communities: inspiring change, connecting local leaders, and building capacity for success across the state for 40 years. If you'd like to get involved, check us out at www.aeromt.org.
Conor Darby is also a co-owner of OnSite Energy, a solar energy contractor based in Bozeman, Mont.