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Op-ed: Why aren’t there more solar panels in Big Sky?

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PHOTO COURTESY OF UNSPLASH.COM

By Kathy Bouchard

The recently formed Sustainability Committee of the Rotary Club of Big Sky has set a goal to “create the world’s best sustainable community through partnering with Big Sky residents and organizations.” With this in mind, we have set about to explore some green questions regarding Big Sky and its place in a sustainable future. This first exploration regards a sunny exposition of the opening question: “Why aren’t there more solar panels in Big Sky?

A number of incentives exist for installing solar panels. A 30 percent federal tax credit for residential and commercial installation expires in December, to be replaced by 26 percent in 2020, 22 percent in 2021, and finally only 10 percent for commercial projects only the following year. There is no sales tax in Montana, and there is a state tax credit available for those making enough income to qualify. According to www.solarpowerrocks.com, installing solar panels on your home increases its value up to 20 times your annual energy bill. Montana also grants a property tax exemption for 100 percent of that gain for 10 years. Such are the financial incentives to ponder whether paid up front or with a loan. So why aren’t there more panels in Big Sky?

I asked the only person I know in Big Sky who installed solar panels when he built his home in my neighborhood a few years ago. He loves having five months of insignificant power bills, and the credits he amasses in the summer, selling his surplus back to the grid, roll month-to-month. They are unceremoniously erased in January, costing him, my neighbor estimates, about a month’s worth of power. By then the array is under snow and things don’t start humming along again until May.

Montana has the ninth cheapest electricity in the nation at about 11 cents/kWh. This cheap price usually indicates power production generated by burning coal. An externality is a cost of production not born by the producer, often having the effect of artificially reducing the cost to the consumer. The externalities of coal production include toxic coal ash, air and water pollution, and huge carbon emissions. As Montana and the rest of the country wrestle with these problems, the safe bet is that the price of electricity generated using coal will only go up. Maybe a lot.

Along with his roof-mounted solar array, my neighbor also installed two solar water-heating panels. That means “free” hot water all summer long, aided by day-timed use of dishwashers and laundry to further take advantage of the cyclically heated water. He says he loaded the front end cost of construction (which included sustainably manufactured lumber, high efficiency windows, and automatic window shades to preserve heat in winter and cool in summer) so he could enjoy diminished power bills over time. An ordinary solar installation costs about $20,000 without incentives or rebates. His solar array is larger than typical to cover the needs of a large shop. While the return hasn’t been quite up to original expectations, when asked “Would you do it again?” a hearty “Yes!” was the response.

For more information visit www.solarpowerrocks.com or call any of the Bozeman-based  solar installers listed below that:

Harvest Solar MT

(406) 570.8844

Independent Power Systems

(406) 587.5295

Liquid Solar Systems

(4060 581.1972

OnSite Energy

(406) 551.6135

Thirsty Lake Solar

(406) 219.1119

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