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Discussions continue regarding Whitefish community solar project

Hagadone News Network | January 22, 2023 12:00 AM

Whitefish continues to hammer out plans to install a solar panel facility near its wastewater treatment plant along Monegan Road.

City Council during a recent work session directed city staff to work on an agreement with Flathead Electric Cooperative for the community solar facility that would likely be a fixed panel system expected to produce about 200 kilowatts. The facility 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 the community solar panel array on1 acre of city-owned property.

While the city is providing the land for the project, all upfront capital costs and maintenance are FEC’s responsibility, according to Public Works Director Craig Workman.

Previously panels were expected to be available for purchase by individuals at an estimated price of $1,000 each. A federal tax rebate is available for purchasers of panels.

However, 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. FEC is expected to 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 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,” city 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, 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 the energy use of local low‐income residents. FEC would coordinate this program with the 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.