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Discussions continue regarding community solar project

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | January 18, 2023 1:05 AM

The Whitefish City Council held a work session prior to their last regular meeting to discuss the installation of a solar photovoltaic panels facility near the wastewater treatment plant along Monegan Road. Council directed staff to continue working on an agreement with Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC).

The community solar PV facility would likely be a fixed panel system and would produce about 200 KW. The facilities would be managed and maintained by FEC.

New information about the efficiency of the wastewater treatment plant helped determine that the community solar project will be capable of generating approximately one-third of the annual power requirement at the wastewater treatment facility.

In early February 2022, council directed city staff to explore this potential project and create a draft agreement with FEC. In July, councilors considered further a plan to work with FEC to install a 200-kilowatt community solar panel array on one acre of city-owned property.

At that time, Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman said that while the city is dedicating one acre of land for this project, all the upfront capital costs and maintenance are FEC’s responsibility and that is still the case.

It was also mentioned in earlier discussions that, perhaps panels would be available for purchase by individuals at an estimated price of $1,000 each and that there is a federal tax rebate available for purchasers of panels.

Since then, two federal programs have been identified to help fund the project and in order to apply for them, some changes in the initial proposal have been made.

According to the staff report, FEC will apply for a USDA Rural Energy for America Program grant for about 30% of the project cost, approximately $140,000. In order to apply, the project must first be designed, bid and a contractor selected. The application is due at the end of March.

FEC may also qualify for the federal government’s 30% tax credit for solar projects under the Inflation Reduction Act.

With these federal programs, the panel cost per member would be significantly reduced from the originally estimated $1,000 to between $400 and $700. Due to the requirements of the federal grant program, FEC would sell the panel’s energy output, rather than the physical panel.

“It’s not going to be the actual physical panel that is sold, it’s going to be the energy output from the panel,” Whitefish Senior Project Engineer Karin Hilding said.

People who buy a panel’s energy will not be qualified for a tax credit, however, the energy produced by the panel is deducted as an energy credit from the purchaser’s utility bill over time.

If the city wants to purchase panels, Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman proposed an option.

“The wastewater plant is performing better than they expected from an energy perspective, so I anticipate $5,000 to $10,000 in additional budget that we won’t spend on energy,'' Workman said. “We don’t know exactly what a panel is going to cost but we think that would afford us about 10 panels.”

The Bonneville Environmental Foundation has expressed interest in purchasing several panels and donating them to offset energy use of local low‐income residents. FEC would coordinate this program with the LIEAP (Low Income Energy Assistance Program) run by the Community Action Partnership of Northwest Montana.

The proposed agreement between the city and FEC is currently a 30-year term and is still being negotiated. The panels may be installed this summer or fall.

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