Solar Powered

It might seem that our society’s concerns for fossil-fueled dependence have only transpired within the last few decades, but as it turns out, research and development of more sustainable fuel sources dates back to the 1800s. And now, over 300 years later, the sun is still our most abundant source of true renewable energy her in the Big Sky State. From the backwoods to our urban communities, there are plentiful stories of self-reliant, do-it-yourself Montanans who have made the switch to solar power. Even though it might seem like a complicated hassle to add solar panels to your house, the reality is that the process is much simpler than you think. Here’s how some local residents have fared.

Tune In, Turn On

The most widely used form of solar electricity is “grid-tied.” The concept is pretty simple: you put a solar electric system on your house and it creates energy. If you’re not around to use the energy, the power you send into the grid is credited to your account (this is called net-metering). Like a squirrel gathering nuts, you can bank those credits and use them when the days get short and the nights get cold.

Ed Roe of Manhattan is the proud owner of the first net-metered system in the state. He says he used net-metering to convert his family’s concerns about rising energy costs and renewable energy into “grid-tied” solar. On December 21, 1999, he turned on his family’s system. “We stuck it in and our meter just started spinning backwards,” he says.

Since then, Ed and his family have become very aware of their electricity use so they can get the most out of their system. “We try to conserve wherever we can,” he says. Roe has installed compact fluorescent bulbs and motion-censored lights around his home. “I’d recommend solar to anyone,” he adds. “In fact, I’m more than happy to have anyone who is interested in solar out to my house to see for themselves.” 

The Last Best Place

When you don’t have the grid to tap into for net-metering, your energy system will require a bank of batteries to hold the charge for those long nights. This setup is referred to as “off-grid,” and it’s not just for anti-government hermits. From Big Timber to Cardwell and far beyond, many people in southwest Montana have chosen to be off-grid. 

Up at Homestake Lodge, Chris and Mandy Axelson have done just that. “We wanted Homestake Lodge to be as Earth-friendly as possible, with a minimal carbon footprint,” Chris says. In order to fulfill that objective, they installed a large solar array that meets the electrical requirements of all their facilities, including a two-kilometer lighted ski course. 

Even though the lodge is off-grid, it still provides all the amenities of a world-class cross-country skiing destination, including a main lodge, a coffee/espresso bar, two bunkrooms that can accommodate up to 20 people, a private cabin, and a ski-in/ski-out yurt. “We are 100% dependent on the power produced by our own electrical system,” Chris says. After four successful years of running Homestake Lodge using renewable energy, Chris is satisfied with the results. “It’s mind-opening to consider that here in Montana it’s possible to meet 100% of your annual electrical usage with renewable energy. We hope everyone who visits Homestake Lodge leaves with an impression of what a roof covered with solar panels is truly capable of providing.”