Solar flares

On a recent Friday morning, Bryan von Lossberg stands atop Missoula's new downtown parking structure, called "Park Place," and admires the rows of solar panels absorbing the morning sun.

"I actually find it pretty aesthetically pleasing, but that's my engineering nerd side," says von Lossberg, who's the executive director of Montana's nonprofit Alternative Energy Resources Organization, or AERO.

Park Place's solar installation—the largest of its kind in the state—will satisfy roughly 80 percent of the structure's electricity needs and feed surplus energy generated at peak sun times back into the grid. That method, called net metering, enables the city, which owns the parking garage, to bank energy credits and use them to offset future utility costs.

The massive installation gives Missoula bragging rights. But there's an aspect to the project that von Lossberg and other renewable energy advocates find troubling.

State laws governing net metering haven't been updated since 1999, and von Lossberg says that slow adaptation is hindering the burgeoning solar industry. The problem is on display at Park Place, where a state law that limits net-meter installations to 50 kilowatts in size forced Missoula to install two meters—one at 50 kW and another at 35—rather than simply using one for the whole system.

"It is more costly to install, more complicated to install, for no good reason," von Lossberg says.

The additional $3,000 expense of purchasing another meter and connecting it to the project may seem insignificant in light of the structure's $10 million construction costs. But several renewable energy advocates, including AERO, the Montana Renewable Energy Association and the Montana Public Interest Research Group, in addition to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, testified in February at the Montana Legislature that the limit is stifling solar innovation.

NorthWestern Energy argued against the bill, stating that because solar producers aren't required to pay the full costs of transmitting and distributing power, utility consumers are being forced to subsidize net metering.

"It's not really workable under the current constraints to make it a larger program," says NorthWestern Energy's Claudia Rapkoch.

AERO and other renewable advocates dispute NorthWestern's assertion. However, they didn't persuade the legislature to support the cause. Lawmakers let the legislation, Senate Bill 247, die and left the 50 kW cap in place.

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