Embracing Montana’s Solar Potential

The promise of solar energy is finally being realized

By Henry Dykema

Thomas Edison said in 1931, “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Three quarters of a century later, the promise of solar energy is finally being realized. The price of solar panels has dropped by more than half since 2009, and there are now more jobs in solar in this country than there are in oil and gas extraction or coal mining.

To allow Montana’s solar industry to continue growing toward its enormous potential, we need the right policies in place. That’s why I was so glad to see the energy plan recently released by Gov. Steve Bullock.

Here in Montana, rooftop solar is growing at a rate of 30 percent per year, and large-scale solar projects are also beginning to be developed. Within the last year, three Montana electric cooperatives have installed community solar projects, allowing co-op members to buy into a larger solar array built by the co-op. Solar developers have signed contracts to build six large-scale solar arrays in Montana, and dozens more similar projects have been proposed.

As owner of a solar business near Red Lodge for the past 22 years, I’ve witnessed the growth of Montana’s solar industry firsthand.

In addition to creating jobs and boosting our economy, solar is a valuable energy resource. It produces at times of high demand for electricity, when energy is especially valuable, and it helps to diversify our energy portfolio and make the grid more resilient.

Despite its recent growth, today solar accounts for just 0.1 percent of Montana’s in-state electricity use, but its potential is huge. A recent study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that rooftop solar in Montana could meet 28 percent of Montana’s electricity needs.

The governor’s plan, titled “The Future of Montana Electricity,” addresses our state’s shifting energy landscape and lays out a variety of strategies to advance clean energy. When it comes to solar, the plan includes a goal of doubling solar development in the state by 2025. I am confident that we will meet that goal well ahead of schedule, thanks in part to some of the strategies outlined in the plan.

For example, net metering is Montana’s foundational solar policy and has made rooftop solar development possible in the state. The governor’s plan opposes efforts to weaken the net metering law, ensuring that rooftop solar be allowed to continue growing.

It’s also great to see the state government leading by example on solar. The plan calls for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to evaluate the potential of solar on its own building in Helena, as well as other state-owned buildings and facilities around Montana.

As the governor’s plan points out, “Over the coming decades, the energy landscape will dramatically change.” Coal has been an important part of Montana’s economy for a long time, but as buyers of Montana electricity increasingly demand cleaner energy sources, there’s no question that our energy sector is in flux. Change can be disorienting, but with change comes opportunity. The people of Montana have always been known for their resourcefulness and adaptability. By seizing the clean energy opportunities before us, we can come through this transition stronger and more prosperous than ever.

Thank you, governor, for an energy plan that embraces Montana’s clean energy potential.

Henry Dykema is president of the nonprofit Montana Renewable Energy Association and owner of Sundance Solar Systems, a solar installation business near Red Lodge.

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