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Back 40: Plug into the sun



By Brad Van Wert
Explore Big Sky Contributor

In April of 1954, researchers at Bell Laboratories – a research and development center formerly operated by AT&T – demonstrated the first practical silicon solar cell, the precursor of all solar-powered devices.

The New York Times reported on the discovery in its April 26, 1954 issue writing that, “It may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

Now, 60 years later we are truly beginning to see this new era flourish. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the number of installed solar energy systems grew by 418 percent from 2010-2014, more than quadrupling capacity in just four years.

Take a look around, and you’ll notice that solar is everywhere. But still, many wonder how it all works.

Solar panels are made of photovoltaic cells, which are comprised of semiconductors like silicon. When light energy strikes the solar cell, electrons are knocked loose from the atoms in the semiconductor material. If electrical conductors are attached to the positive and negative sides, forming an electrical circuit, the electrons can be captured in the form of an electric current, or electricity.

Now, this is all well and good when we’re in the classroom talking physics. But how does one integrate this scientific jargon into his or her home? The answer is much easier than many imagine.

The most common form of residential solar is referred to as “grid-tied.” Grid-tied solar allows homeowners and business owners alike to add solar electricity to their property while still being connected to the larger, electrical grid.

The solar panels produce electricity that is fed into your service panel, which then powers the electrical needs of your home. So, when the sun is shining outside, it’s actually powering the electrical devices being used in your home, like your refrigerator.

Funny thing about Montanans though – usually if the sun is out, we are too. What then?

Welcome to the world of “net-metering.” When generating more power than is needed at your home, excess electricity is shipped to the grid through the power meter, winding back the meter from its usual direction.

When you add power to the grid, you receive a credit for each kilowatt-hour. To achieve “net-zero” – that is, when your solar provides all the electricity you need – your system will be designed to generate the same amount of energy that your site uses over the course of a year.

So while you’re out bagging a peak or ripping lips with your fly rod, your solar system is hard at work creating electricity and banking credits for you.

Now you might wonder if Montana is a good place for solar, and the answer is a definite yes!

Southwest Montana has as many energy producing sun hours per day as Florida, the sunshine state. But we have a whole lot more going for us than that. Our elevation and clean air, combined with cold, crisp days make Big Sky Country an incredible place to harvest solar power.

Brad Van Wert is a self-proclaimed writer who likes to eat a lot – he has a career in renewable energy, so he isn’t one of those starving types. Van Wert has lived in Bozeman for 15 years and started Harvest Solar in 2012 with his partner Kyle MacVean. Collectively, they have installed hundreds of solar systems ranging from small, off-grid systems to large, commercial systems.

Visit or call Harvest Solar at (406) 570-8844 for more information about how solar energy works.

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