Solar power experts will be on the Hi-Line next week to talk about the sun, education and opportunity.
Representatives of the Hi-Line Solar Schools Education Project will be in Chester Tuesday and Valier Wednesday showing off solar power laboratories built on the schools in those towns, providing a break on energy bills for the schools and an educational opportunity for the students.
John Palm of Bozeman Green Build, a renewable energy systems company, said three opportunities have come together to help the schools build solar energy laboratories, and he invited anyone interested in solar power to the open houses to see what it could do for them.
"This whole solar thing is an interesting and viable and economically compelling option," he said.
Bozeman Green Build is installing more systems in the area for schools in Chinook and Rocky Boy. The school districts in Box Elder, Big Sandy, Harlem and Glasgow also have applied for the grants.
The NorthWestern Energy grants, available to schools in NorthWestern's service area, help pay for installation of solar panels.
June Pusich-Lester, an engineer with NorthWestern Energy, said Palm spearheaded the Hi-Line project, contacting schools in the region and helping write the grant proposals.
The applications are for NorthWestern's renewable energy grant program, funded through Universal System Benefit funds, which also are available for residential and commercial customers of NorthWestern.
Opportunities for help paying for solar systems and reduction in the costs of the systems has made them dramatically more affordable in the last few years, Palm said.
He said NorthWestern's grants, coupled with state and federal tax breaks and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Rural Energy for America Program grants, can reduce the time for a solar power system to pay for itself to about 10 years.
"Right now, at this point in time, things have converged a little bit," he said.
Businesses and agricultural producers in rural areas - which is all of Montana outside of Billings - are eligible for the USDA REAP grants.
The Hi-Line Solar Schools Project has paid the entire purchase and installation cost - about $21,000 - for schools on the Hi-Line so far, and Palm said the next round will require the schools to pay for permitting, about $500.
The solar energy systems are expected to save each school about $45,000 in energy bills over their 30-year lifespan, he said.
Each school is receiving a 6-kilowatt system that is net-metered, which means if more power is produced than used it is fed back into the power grid and generates a credit on the user's power bill. Each system provides enough electricity to power an average Montana home - or a school computer lab, Palm said.
Pusich-Lester said the systems are not likely to actually provide more electricity than the schools use so won't likely provide a credit, though it will reduce their electrical bills. The net-metering concept also helps with the education, she said.
"It gives the kids an idea of what's going on," Pusich-Lester said.
The program provides multiple benefits for the schools. Along with the savings on energy bills, Palm said, Bozeman Green Build worked with teachers to create a curriculum to go along with the solar energy systems. The curricula have been designed so they can be tailored to whichever age group, be it elementary, middle school or high school upperclassmen, is in the class and whatever subject is being taught. That could range from elementary-level science and mathematics to trigonometry, physics and economics, he said.
People from the project come in to present the classes the first time, while the teachers watch, then the curriculum is turned over to the school, he said.
The system includes data monitoring of the electrical output that can be used to teach the students, and having the system right on the roof of the school provides a hands-on laboratory.
The Tuesday open house is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. at C-J-I High School and the Valier High School open house is from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at the school in Valier.