Laurie Lohrer and her husband, Roger, installed solar collectors on their property outside of Lewistown about six years ago.
“We continue today to consider it the best investment we ever made,” she said.
Since then, other ranchers, home owners, commercial building owners and government buildings in and around Lewistown have also added solar installations, a trend that Lohrer calls “a virus, only a good one.”
To celebrate the growth of solar energy, the Central Montana Resource Council, which Lohrer chairs, is sponsoring a free “Solar Film Festival” at the Lewistown Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 19.
It will feature the premiere of a new film, “Central Montana Goes Solar,” highlighting some of those solar installations as well as the Cooperative Solar project of the Fergus Electric Cooperative.
The festival will begin with refreshments and registration at 5:30, followed by the screening of the film. After that, there will be a question-and-answer session with a panel of project owners and representatives of solar installer Thornton/Onsite Energy Inc., of Bozeman.
The CMRC got help in making the film from the Northern Plains Resource Council in Billings, which is a co-sponsor of the festival and of which the CMRC is an affiliate.
Lohrer said she and her husband built the first large solar project in the Fergus Electric Co-op service area, and the co-op was very good about working with them. Like others who have put in solar installations, the Lohrer do net-metering through Fergus Electric.
By connecting to the grid through Fergus Electric, net metering allows the Lohrers to use the electricity they generate at any time. Fergus Electric “banks” the Lohrers’ energy, allowing them, for instance, to use excess energy produced during sunny summer months in the following winter, when energy use is higher and cloudy days more common.
Net metering customers still pay a base charge of $32.50 a month, plus an $8 monthly administrative fee, according to Scott Sweeney, general manager of Fergus Electric, and customers are not paid for excess energy if they produce more than they use.
“We don’t care because one of our neighbors gets it,” Laurie Lohrer said. She and her husband generally produce more energy than they can use in a given year, she said.
Some of the bigger solar projects in the Lewistown area included an Episcopal church, the Lewistown library and the Lewistown Art Center, Lohrer said.
Meanwhile, Fergus Electric gave lots of other people the chance to “go solar” without having to make big investments to install solar collectors on their own property. It did so with its Solar Cooperative project, which involved having members of the co-op buy one or more solar panels in a large solar array made up of 324 panels on co-op property.
Sweeney said the board of directors of the co-op was approached by several members about building such an array, and when the board surveyed its members, it found there was quite a bit of interest in the concept.
“We cautiously went forward and we were looking at a couple of different sizes, and this spring the board opted to go with the larger size,” Sweeney said.
That meant going with the full 324 solar panels, capable of generating 100 kilowatts, as opposed to 216 panels and 70 kilowatts. “And here on Monday we sold out,” Sweeney said.
All 324 panels, priced at $595 each, were sold, many to people who bought just one, but also to people who bought more than one, and in a handful of cases as many as 20 or 25 panels.
Owners of each panel are credited on their energy bills for the energy generated by the panel or panels they own. Sweeney said each panel will produce about 450 kilowatt hours per year. By comparison, he said, the average residential customer will use about 900 kilowatt hours a month.
The initial project length is 20 years. At that point, the co-op will assess the project and decide whether it makes sense to extend its life. Sweeney said that with a 30 percent federal tax credit for owners of the solar panels, it is estimated that each panel will pay for itself in 9.4 years — less than half the life of the project.
“So it’s a reasonable payoff period,” he said.
Fergus Electric has about 3,800 members in 12 counties in central Montana. Sweeney said 19 members are using net metering.