Missoula's solar industry surges 

Dan Brandborg, the general manager of Missoula's SBS Solar, can't fully explain the recent surge in residential photovoltaic system installations. But he says folks who have wavered on going solar over the last couple of years are coming in and saying, "'Let's rock and roll.'" Year-to-date, he says, business is triple what it was last year.

Beth Linkenhoker of Sunelco, in Victor, is seeing the same thing. "Five years ago," she says, "they looked at the numbers, and said, 'Well, maybe not.' Now, those same people come in, they look at the numbers and they say, 'Yeah, I'm ready to do it.' ... I think people are more willing to take the plunge."

At Missoula's Solar Plexus, co-owner Mary Hamilton says, "We did more work last winter than we've ever done in a summer."

Western Montana solar-installation companies are making hay while the sun shines. Their business is buoyed by local, state and federal incentives for renewable energy systems. Last week, at The Loft, in downtown Missoula, Molly Bradford, SBS Solar's marketing and development director, gave a presentation on the array of incentives to a room full of beer-sippers.

Perhaps the biggest inducement is NorthWestern Energy's increasingly popular Renewable Energy Program, which grants its customers $3 per watt for photovoltaic installations, up to $6,000. And there's the federal 30 percent Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit. And the state's $1,000 tax credit. And the Montana Department of Environmental Quality's Alternative Energy Revolving Loan Program, which gives loans of up to $40,000 at 3.75 percent interest for renewable energy projects.

Plus, solar panel prices have plummeted. Bloomberg reports that the price of polysilicon, the raw material used to make most solar panels, fell three percent last week to its lowest price in a decade, due to oversupply.

"It's bringing the total system cost on a two-kilowatt system down to about $2,500—essentially near a 10-year payback," says SBS Solar project manager Alexander Sievers.

Still, "When payback is your only motivation," Bradford said during her presentation, "it's a hard sale."

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