Energy 

Grants gone dry

Solar panel installation companies are scrambling to fill holes in project funding after Northwestern Energy awarded fewer grants per company for renewable energy installations than was expected. Installation companies, such as Missoula's SBS Solar or Victor's Sunelco, usually receive six to nine grants bi-annually. But this time around, each only received two. "This past spring we were all doing triple our regular business," says Molly Bradford of SBS Solar. "We had this awesome boom, then one little thing changes and crash."

The problem stemmed largely from the growing popularity of solar power and the rise of new energy installation companies. "Missoula has the most installers and the most projects," says Northwestern Energy's Claudia Rapkoch. "There are many worthy projects and Northwestern has to keep the distribution equal."

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In 1997, Montana legislators established the Universal System Benefit Program, which requires all electric and gas utility companies to collect a monthly $1 tax on customers' bills. A portion of the money raised from that tax, about $1.2 million, is collected for renewable energy projects distributed after the fall and spring cycles.

A committee consisting of Northwestern Energy personnel and members of the Montana Renewable Energy Association, which is composed of business owners, citizens and politicians, is responsible for determining grant sizes. That committee is now deliberating how best to allocate funds in light of growing demand and lowering costs.

Sunelco president Tom Bishop says that in light of a drop in the price of solar panel materials by about 40 percent during the past few years, grants could be stretched further to serve a greater number of people. "The dilemma is, Do we reduce the number of grants?" he says. "Do we put all the grants on first-come, first-serve basis? Or do we halve the grants and allow twice as many people to get them?"

As for Bradford, she remains confident that this discussion taking place among so many like-minded people will bring continued advancements in renewable energy, despite the setback. "Right now, we're creating alliances with other small mom-and-pop providers that might not have otherwise formed," Bradford says. "There's definitely a silver lining."

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