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Montana Green Power

Your Guide to Renewable Energy in Montana


Livingston Family's Solar Array 
Tied to Montana Power Grid

By Dwight Harriman
Reprinted with permission from the
Livingston Enterprise

Standing on the roof of his Green Acres home recently, Dick Caruso explains how the solar panels for his solar energy system work. (Erik Petersen photo)Dick Caruso has an electric meter that can run backward. And every time it does, he saves money.

It all started with a small ad the Green Acres resident saw in a newspaper which talked about a solar energy demonstration program, sponsored by the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte and the Montana Power Company, to set up a couple dozen solar systems around the state. Homeowners chosen for the systems would, at the end of one year, get to keep the $10,000 system if they kicked in $3,000 toward the cost.

Sounded pretty intriguing to Caruso.

"I’ve always been interested in conservation things ... looking at ways to save on oil, gas, electricity, whatever," he said.

He applied and, along with Livingston resident Marshall Engstrom, was accepted for the program – the only Park County residents who were. His system was installed in August, one day after Engstrom’s. Recently, on a bright, sunny afternoon, he showed it off.

Everything starts on the roof, where three banks of four solar panels, or photovoltaic modules, absorb the sunlight. To qualify for the program, Caruso’s home had to have a south-facing roof pitched between 20 and 60 degrees, with 45 being the ideal.

The solar panels produce DC electricity, or direct current. The current is fed through wires running through Caruso’s attic to a control box mounted on his garage wall, where it is converted to AC, or alternating current – of the type MPC provides homes.

The electricity produced by the solar panels goes first to power Caruso's appliances. If any is left over, it is fed into the MPC power grid, and a special electric meter mounted outside the home reflects what is taking place: it literally starts running backward, as it was on the day of the interview for this story.

That strange action translates into savings on Caruso’s power bill.

Meanwhile, a computer readout on the system’s control panel allows Caruso to monitor energy data, such as how much is being produced and consumed, and its voltage and amperage. A modem mounted on the panel allows NCAT to monitor the system, as well. The modem will be disconnected at the end of the yearlong program.

NCAT says that on a sunny day, a one-kilowatt system such as Caruso’s will have an electrical output of about 1,000 watts. It also says the system should produce about 1,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which is equivalent to about 17 percent of the average home's annual electrical consumption.

However, Caruso calculates the system could save him perhaps 20 percent of his electric costs.

Seated at his kitchen table with his wife Donna, he hauls out spreadsheets charting 18 years of power consumption and taps out figures on – what else, a solar-powered calculator – to confirm his savings.

"The arithmetic on this is fairly simple," says the retired accountant matter-of-factly.

He figures he gives up about $180 a year in what his $3,000 contribution to the solar system could earn him, but in return will save about $100 a year on his electric bill.

"And I still got the $3,000 – it’s up there on the roof," he says. "It’s a win-win situation."

Neighbors, of course, are curious about the array on the roof.

They ask, "What are you doing?" Caruso laughs, leaning back in his seat. "It’s generated a lot of interest."

"I think it's going to be a real neat experiment," Donna says.

Unfortunately, people wanting to participate in the program will be unable to, at least for now, since it is out of funding for this round of solar systems.

NCAT Program Specialist Ray Schott said they received 600 requests for applications, "which totally overwhelmed us."

Caruso points to the control panel for his solar system, where its DC electricity is converted to AC for his home's electrical needs. A computer readout on the panel allows him to monitor energy output and consumption. (Erik Petersen photo)However, Schott says there is a good chance of getting funds for another handful of installations. He also indicated there was the possibility for a similar wind-powered program between MPC and another organization.

Schott said 12 Montana schools are participating in a solar program, using solar systems twice as big as a residential one.

He said the best location in the state for catching the sun’s rays was, not surprisingly, in eastern Montana, but added that just about anywhere in the state would be within 80 percent of optimum solar conditions.

Meanwhile, Caruso is watching his electric meter and bills closely.

"We’re just waiting for the bills to start coming in, so we can see," he chuckles again.

Livingston Enterprise photos by Erik Petersen


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