A solar electricity storage project in Kalispell, Montana, combines three things at which electric cooperatives excel: testing new technology to see if it is a good fit for members, helping members lower their electric bills and forming partnerships in the community.
Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC) recently selected the Flathead Youth Home to test rooftop solar panels and a Tesla Powerwall battery storage system. The 7.2-kilowatt, net-metered solar array and backup system will save on average about $44 per month on the home’s electric bills while the co-op collects and evaluates performance data on it.
The battery backup sets this solar installation apart from FEC’s Solar Utility Network (SUN) community solar project and the 38 residential arrays on its system. Energy Services Representative David Bopp is expecting the youth home project to provide deeper insights into the technology. “There is a large potential market for batteries in the future, so we hope to get ahead of it by testing it in its infancy,” he said. “We want to gather data now before people start putting them in and coming to us asking, ‘What can I get?’”
A committee of utility employees came together to guide the pilot project and provide input on future projects from different perspectives. “The transformative technology committee includes representatives from business technology, member services, GIS, regulatory affairs, public relations and rate design, so they all have a different perspective to offer,” said Bopp. “It formed around the solar project, but we would like to keep it together to evaluate other technologies as they come up.”
The committee initially considered an employee’s house when it began discussing the project, because the goal was to see how the system worked in a residential setting. But when the time came to site the project, they decided to choose a local charity with a similar electricity-use profile, noting that they could gather data for their purposes and benefit a nonprofit at the same time.
Finding the right charity—and in a hurry—posed something of a challenge to FEC. “It was late in the development process, so we didn’t have time to put it in our newsletter,” Bopp recalled. “We used social media to ask our customers for recommendations, called a nonprofit development group and United Way and brainstormed internally.”
One consideration was that many residential charities have confidentiality and safety concerns, and FEC wanted a partner that could participate in marketing and public outreach efforts. The charity would have to be comfortable with allowing FEC personnel access to the system and with the data being publicized at conferences. The Flathead Youth Home, which provides short- and long-term services to youth, is well established in Kalispell and promotes its work to the public, so it was a good candidate. “Luckily, the home happens to be in a part of town where people can see it, too,” Bopp added.
From a technical standpoint, the 10-bedroom facility and administrative office had the right electricity profile. “We needed a minimum use so that the system would not be putting too much electricity back onto the grid,” said Bopp.
Built in 2009, the home had good southern exposure and was relatively new so it didn’t need structural or efficiency upgrades. If the building owners were going to make any energy efficiency improvements in the near future, that would have to be factored into the electricity use data. “We wanted a steady load,” Bopp explained. “The home could qualify for a lighting upgrade rebate but that isn’t going to be a big enough change to affect the data.”
The system was installed in December, but winter put a hold on completing the wiring for the solar interconnection. The battery’s capability is being tested while final connections wait for winter’s end. Bopp expects to fire up the system fully and start collecting data this spring. The Flathead Youth Home will own the system after 10 years and until then the director will give tours on behalf of the co-op.
Diversifying technologies, energy supply
One of the central goals of the pilot is to discover if solar coupled with battery storage has ancillary benefits for both customers and FEC. The technology committee suspects that system might be useful in helping to manage peak load. The project will test that assumption and help the utility answer questions about rates, incentives and control going forward. “By testing batteries in their infancy, we can figure out how to use them while making sure we are fair to all our members,” said Bopp.
The utility battery storage pilot project is the first in Montana, just as FEC’s SUN program was the state’s first community solar project. Electricity rates are so low in the region that renewable generators often have a discouragingly long payback period. However, renewable energy is still attractive to customers who have environmental concerns, are interested in energy independence or have remote loads to power.
FEC supports these customers with a net-metering policy, and by acquiring diversified resources. In addition to the residential solar arrays, there are four small wind turbines on its system. The utility owns a 1.5-megawatt landfill gas-to-energy facility and has purchase power agreements for electricity from a small hydropower generator and a biomass facility.