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Residential Solar Electric Demonstration Project Allows Montana Homeowners Generate Their Own Green Energy


Through NorthWestern Energy's Residential Solar Electric Demonstration project, some 65 homeowners received financial incentives to install solar electric systems on their homes in just five years (2000-2004).

Solar electric systems-also called photovoltaics or PV-provide a portion of a building's electricity needs by converting energy from the sun into electricity. Any excess electricity produced by the system is fed into NorthWestern Energy's utility grid through a net metering agreement, which essentially allows the building's meter to spin backward, reducing energy costs.

The amount of energy produced by the installed systems varies by system size, location, climate, and other factors. Systems range from 900 to 3,900 watts-averaging about 1,450 watts-and are widely distributed across Montana. Funding for the incentives came from NorthWestern Energy's Universal Systems Benefits funds, paid for by all NorthWestern Energy electric customers. Only homes served by the Company's electric distribution system were eligible.

Bischke Residence, Bozeman

So far, the project is reaping tremendous benefits. With a total installed capacity of 94.3 kilowatts, the systems have produced an impressive 470 megawatt-hours of electricity over the project's five-year life.

What does this mean for Montana? "In addition to saving Montana homeowners money, the project generates electricity from a renewable resource," explained Ray Schott of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), which administers the project. "Renewable energy systems are non-polluting, so they cause much less damage to the environment than fossil fuel energy systems," Schott added.

Renewable energy systems offer important economic benefits, as well. Because renewable energy is a highly labor-intensive industry, building a market can create jobs in manufacturing and assembly, distribution, installation, service, and more.

In addition, because renewable energy uses primarily indigenous resources, more energy dollars can stay in Montana economies. And, taxes paid by renewable energy companies help strengthen the area's economic base, reducing the burden on individual taxpayers.

Boniface Residence, Bozeman

Solar electric systems are easy on the environment. They help reduce the use of fossil fuels and resulting pollution. A 1-kilowatt solar electric system, for example, eliminates the emission of more than 1,750 pounds of carbon dioxide and nearly a half-pound of nitrogen oxides annually. And home solar electric systems conserve natural resources by generating their own "clean" electricity from a renewable energy resource.

A solar electric system produces direct current electricity, which is converted by an inverter into alternating current (AC) electricity at the utility's voltage and frequency. The AC electricity is fed into the household's main electric breaker panel. AC electricity produced by the solar electric system is consumed in the household, and any excess electricity produced by the system goes back into the utility grid.

Ramsay Residence, Billings

When the sun is shining, a one-kilowatt system has an electrical output of 1,000 watts and should generate about 1,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, or about 17 percent of the average annual electrical consumption of an average home.

NorthWestern Energy installed electric meters that turn backward whenever excess power generated by the solar electric system is fed into the utility grid. The inverter, which interconnects to the grid, must be UL listed, and the system must meet all applicable codes. The homeowners must sign net metering agreements with NorthWestern Energy for the project.

Qualifying applicants had to meet basic requirements such as having a roof that has open southern exposure from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and could be adapted for installing solar panels.

For information on installation locations of the residential project, as well as other renewable energy projects, see the USB Solar Installation table.

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