Montana ranks poorly in solar energy 

Just in time for Missoula’s shorter days and infamous inversions, Greenpeace last week issued Solar Promise, a report analyzing solar energy production on a state-by-state basis that details the benefits to each state of increasing solar energy output.

Not surprisingly, Montana ranks low on the list of solar-power generators. Our 34-kilowatt (kW) production pales in comparison to California’s 10-megawatt (MW) solar output, and is still considerably lower than states like Arizona (1.8 MW) and New York (1.2 MW).

Solar Promise also provides solar models for each county in the United States. In Missoula County, the report states that if 1 percent of households installed a 480-watt solar electric system, 181 to 272 megawatt hours of electricity could be generated annually, the county’s carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced from more than 650,000 pounds to less than 400,000 pounds a year, and the energy generated would be comparable to burning 142,000 to 213,000 pounds of coal.

According to Dave Ryan, senior distribution engineer at Montana Power Company, a 480-watt solar electric system would require no more than four feet-by-ten feet of solar panels at an installation cost of roughly $5,000.

“I’m a strong proponent of renewable energy resources,” Ryan says. “People don’t realize how much CO2 we’re pumping into the atmosphere. It’s an incredible amount.”

Because of the relative cost-inefficiency of solar systems, Ryan says that the installation of solar systems is “not an economic decision at this time.” He notes that the photovoltaic system used in the Greenpeace model would save roughly $42 per year in electric costs, given the current market value of electricity. Under those conditions, he says, it would take 118 years for the system to pay for itself. Still, he’s hopeful that steady improvements in solar-power technologies and decreasing costs will result in more widespread use of solar systems. “20 years ago, the price tag for solar systems was five times higher than what they cost now,” he says.

Montanans will soon be able to reap the benefits of the alternative-energy incentives included in the energy bill passed by the 2001 Legislature. That law created tax credits and property tax exemptions for citizens and businesses that install renewable energy systems, and offers low-interest loans for their construction. Those loans, to be funded from revenue generated by air-quality violation fines, will likely be ready for disbursement sometime early next year, says Georgia Brensdal, energy program manager for the Department of Environmental Quality.

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