There are 300,000 people working in the solar energy industry across the nation, but only 150 in Montana. Brad Van Wert, a solar electric contractor and self-proclaimed “Solar Guy” from Bozeman, is hoping to change that math and has been sharing his message on a whistle stop tour across the state. Van Wert stopped at the Kalispell Brewing Co. on Jan. 31 for a packed event.
Although solar energy represents a fraction of the power produced in Montana, Van Wert said more people are interested in installing solar panels at their homes or businesses to utilize the power of the sun. A key part of connecting solar panels to the grid is “net metering,” which allows people to sell excess energy so that they can offset the cost of power when their panels are not producing energy.
The tour comes as the Montana Legislature considers a bill that would change the value of surplus power generated by private panels. Van Wert said Senate Bill No. 78, sponsored by Kalispell Republican Sen. Keith Regier, would set the solar power industry back because it would reduce the rate that power is worth. Current state law also limits the size of a solar project.
The Beacon caught up with Solar Guy to learn more about his vision.
Beacon: Tell us about your background in solar and how you became the Solar Guy.
Van Wert: I’m a solar electric contractor based in Bozeman and I co-own a company called Harvest Solar. I got into the industry in 2009 and from the moment I touched a solar panel, I saw opportunity and I saw the future. I found the industry fascinating and I wanted to be a part of it, and so I dove right in.
I’m interested in making sure the industry has a strong voice here in Montana. When Charge Montana (a collaborative between Renewable Northwest, the Montana Renewable Energy Association, NW Energy Coalition and the Forward Montana Foundation) started up last year, I reached out and said, “What can I do to help?” And we decided that it was time to have a conversation with Montanans about solar. So now I’m doing a tour and a web series trying to (promote the industry) and make sure that Montanans are part of the conversation.
Beacon: Why do you think Montana is an ideal place for the solar industry and what’s preventing the industry from growing right now?
Van Wert: Montana has a spirit of independence. We chop wood to heat our homes, we grow gardens to feed our family, we use our public lands to hunt game to fill our freezers, so homegrown electric energy is right in that wheelhouse. It taps into that independent spirit.
There are 300,000 people working across the country in the solar industry and yet there are only 150 of us here in Montana. That’s because there are roadblocks that are in place in this state. Right now you can only hook up a 50-kilowatt system to a meter right now. But a lot of commercial users need more than that. I did a project in Bozeman this fall where we put a 50-kilowatt system on the roof of a business but they had room for 150 kilowatts. That 50-kilowatt system gave them a 15 percent offset but had we been able to get more solar panels on there we could have created a 50 percent offset.
Beacon: What type of legislation will Charge Montana be supporting this year?
Van Wert: We’re supporting legislation that will grandfather in net meter customers as well as a bill that would raise the cap from 50-kilowatt to 250-kilowatt for government entities. We support that but really want to take that further, and so later in the session, we’re going to push for legislation that does just that. We want to move Montana forward.
For more information visit www.chargemt.org.