Grants Illuminate Path for Flathead Electric Cooperative Solar Garden in Whitefish

Co-op's third community solar panel array will be developed near the Whitefish Wastewater Treatment Plant

By Micah Drew
Solar panels. Beacon file photo

Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC) received two grants to help fund the co-op’s third community solar project, set to break ground this summer in Whitefish.

A $495,535 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy Program for America and a $50,000 grant from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation will provide the bulk of the funding needed for FEC to develop a 400-panel photovoltaic array capable of generating up to 200 kilowatts of energy. Another $5,000 was donated to FEC last year by Douglas Drysdale, who owns local solar company Yeti Photovoltaic.

The project, known as Community Solar III, is being developed in partnership with the city of Whiteish as part of its Climate Action Plan. Last year, the city council approved a plan to lease an acre of land near the wastewater treatment plant to FEC in exchange for the generation of a panel’s worth of electricity. The third phase marks the largest of FEC’s three community solar panel projects, and due to upgrades in technology over the last decade will more than double the output of earlier projects.

“We have benefited from a great partnership with FEC to bring about this solar PV project that will benefit our community into the future,” City of Whitefish Engineering and Sustainability Project Manager Karin Hilding said in a press release.

FEC’s first community solar project, called the Sun Utility Network, came online in 2015 with a 356-panel array next to the co-op’s Stillwater Substation north of Reserve Drive. Community Solar phase II comprises 198 panels on a co-op building in Evergreen. The community projects are described as working similar to community gardens, where co-op member businesses and individuals can purchase individual solar panels and receive credits on their electric bills for the energy generated.

“The community solar model offers an option for members who may not otherwise be able to purchase panels – maybe because they rent or because they don’t have a suitable location at their home or business for solar generation,” FEC Community Relations Manager Katie Pfennigs said. “Grant funds help make solar generation more affordable to Co-op members who are interested in solar technology.”

Due to grant requirements, FEC will maintain ownership of the the Community III panels, but the electricity generated from the project will be for sale to co-op members this spring. The Co-op expects the final purchase price to be around $700 for each 580-watt panel, projected to generate 700 kWh of electricity annually per panel.

In addition to the photovoltaic array, FEC is pairing the solar panels with a 200-kilowatt utility-scale battery to capture and store generated energy. The battery, a first of its kind in northwest Montana, will be primarily charged by the solar panels but will also be chargeable from the grid. The co-op hopes to better understand how utility-scale batteries can enhance the reliability of variable energy sources such as solar and wind, according to the press release. Allowing the captured energy to be deployed throughout the grid during peak hours or at night, when solar generation is not active, makes the dual-force system an especially valuable addition to the co-op, and will reduce fees for members.

The addition of the new solar project will not materially change the carbon footprint of Whitefish, according to Pfennigs, as FEC already utilizes a 97% carbon-free power mix, including more than 82% of power generated from hydroelectric projects throughout the Columbia River Basin. In 2022, just .01% of FEC’s electricity came from solar. However, “it does offer a unique opportunity for co-op members to offset their electricity purchases with locally generated power,” Pfennigs said.

Construction on the FEC-managed facility is expected to begin early this summer.

Members who are interested in purchasing generation from Community Solar III when it becomes available should visit Community Solar – Flathead Electric Cooperative to place their name on the interest list.

[email protected]