Study considers solar power potential

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – North of Frontage Road, near croplands and the Bridger Mountains, stands an array of newly built photovoltaic panels on approximately 2.3 acres of city land.

Now in its infancy, this five-year pilot project will help NorthWestern Energy, the city of Bozeman and Montana State University better understand the potential of solar generation across the state.

Construction began on the Bozeman Solar Project in August with a ribbon cutting Sept. 30 and NorthWestern Energy CEO Robert Rowe and Bozeman City Mayor Carson Taylor addressing the crowd. OnSite Energy of Bozeman installed the panels and now that the project is complete, the partners will begin assessing solar energy production and overall power use in Bozeman.

bozeman-solar-project_20160907_facebook3“There is a great deal of interest in clean, renewable energy in the Bozeman community,” the city’s Sustainability Program Manager Natalie Meyer said. “Following numerous conversations between NorthWestern Energy, city staff and Bozeman elected officials, we found that there was a mutual interest in exploring sustainable renewable energy models.”

Energy generated by the panels will be stored in NorthWestern Energy’s electrical grid. The solar panel study will be paired with the installation of advanced electrical meters at 40 residential and 20 commercial sites, helping the project partners better understand the energy needs of customers.

The study site was donated by the city of Bozeman and adjoins the water reclamation facility property. It’s funded by a $1 million commitment NorthWestern Energy made as a part of $3 million the company will put toward community-based renewable energy projects throughout the state in coming years.

“We had a number of Bozeman residents calling for the community solar model, which means that a developer or utility builds a large-scale array and customers have an opportunity to purchase a share of the energy generated to offset their electricity use,” Meyer said. “The model is more cost-effective due to the economy of scale and it’s not limited only to those who happen to own a home with a south-facing roof and are willing to make a big long-term investment.”

Currently, 56 percent of the electricity supplied by NorthWestern Energy comes from wind or water, supplied by hydroelectric dams and wind farms owned or contracted by the company.

“Solar energy is an area of renewable energy we haven’t done a lot of work in,” said NorthWestern Energy spokesman Butch Larcombe. “We don’t really know how much energy it is going to supply. We want to know how effective it would be.”

Several groups of MSU senior electrical engineering students will work with the company’s engineers in order to observe the process, said Robert Maher, head of MSU’s department of electrical and computer engineering.

“One of the difficulties of the electrical grid is that at any given time, the amount of energy used by a customer needs to be matched by the amount of energy generated,” Maher explained. “The time of day when the community really needs electricity is later afternoon…but the time when solar panels make the most energy is noon-time when the sun is high in the sky.”

The Bozeman Solar Project is a step toward understanding and overcoming these kinds of problems.

“In the future, solar will become a more significant part of our energy mix, which is a good thing, but it does demand more out of our utility and our grid,” Meyer said. “Solar energy is an opportunity for Bozeman to meet our Climate Action Plan goals of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and it is an opportunity to further diversify our energy mix to improve our state’s overall resiliency.”