Beartooth Electric proposes solar project for members

BEC

Linda Halstead-Acharya

Arleen Boyd, a board member of Beartooth Electric Cooperative, visits with BEC General Manger Kevin Owens, center, and BEC member Burt Williams after a meeting in Absarokee on Tuesday. BEC is proposing a community solar project for members.

“Our place. Your power.” Those four words, according to Beartooth Electric Cooperative General Manager Kevin Owens, define the essence of the co-op’s venture into solar energy.

“It’s about generating electricity at a solar array in one location and using it in another location,” Owens said.

The project, dubbed “Shares Du Soleil,” will allow Beartooth members to purchase energy output from a community solar array to be erected at BEC’s headquarters just north of Red Lodge. Members who choose to buy in — Shares Du Soleil is strictly voluntary and is not underwritten by the general membership — will be credited each month based on the kilowatt hours produced the previous month.

On Tuesday evening, roughly 50 people attended a meeting in Absarokee to learn more. Two weeks earlier, a meeting in Red Lodge indicated a similar level of interest.

“We had a robust response,” Owens said of the Red Lodge gathering. “We had folks coming in the next day, wanting to write a check.”

So what’s the excitement about? Shares Du Soleil is a reflection of the nation’s growing interest in solar energy and follows on the heels of several similar projects across Montana, Owens said. Like those projects, Beartooth’s array would offer another option for members to benefit from and support solar energy without erecting panels on their own property. It’s an option for those who rent or for those who have no feasible place to install their own, said Julie Lindgren, president of BEC’s board.

Plus, the community solar model provides the efficiency of scale, optimizing installation costs and bringing solar energy within reach for members who could not otherwise afford to install their own. As an added benefit, Beartooth staff will maintain the array and make sure it’s free of snow.

Members will not buy the actual panel, but the power produced by that panel, Owens explained. When a member buys in, he or she will receive a certificate that can be transferred, sold or donated. And if a member moves to another location within BEC’s boundaries, the credit can follow that member, he said.

Shares Du Soleil, as currently proposed, would not, however, come close to providing enough energy to power a typical home. Nor would it pencil out as a good investment in monetary terms.

“Over the long haul, what you’re doing is buying a hedge against future energy (prices),” Owens said.

As he explains it, members would pay an estimated $750 to purchase the power output from one panel for the life of the project, which is projected at 25 years. Based on today’s energy rates, the member would see his or her energy bill credited by about $29 annually. The savings may seem nominal, but members have voiced other reasons for wanting to sign up.

“I look at it this way,” said LouAnn Atkinson, a Beartooth member. “For $2.40 a month for the next 25 years, you can be part of an exciting experiment. And it’s a low-risk investment’.”

Beartooth Electric Cooperative, only a few years removed from near bankruptcy over the Highwood Generating Station and its membership in Southern Montana Electric, is wasting little time as it shifts focus in a totally different direction. Members will be able to purchase shares inShares Du Soleil – initially members will be limited to purchasing the power from one or two panels — starting July 1 on a first-come, first-served basis. Nov. 1 marks the deadline for signing on and the project is slated to be operational as early as April 2019.

Owens said they currently envision an array of 108 panels creating a “carport” — under which cars can park — along the southern boundary of the BEC parking lot. Should interest exceed or fall below expectations, the project is flexible, he adds.

“It’s scalable,” he said. “It’s not going to live or die whether we have 10 members participating or 50 members participating. And we can re-design it and expand if we have a lot of member interest.”

With only days to go before the initial sign-up, Owens waits to see in real terms the measure of member support.

“This was member-driven,” he said. “They told us they wanted more options and we are really following their lead.”

For more information, go to www.beartoothelectric.com or call the office at 406-446-2310.

Halstead-Acharya is a member of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative Communications Committee.

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