Important Things To Consider
There have been many sources of energy in Montana over the years. Uses have varied from simple windmills, Small dams or solar panels to operate livestock water pumps, to direct current chargers used in the 1920's and 1930's to, most recently, electric power generation. Thus far, private generation on a large scale is only starting to take a foothold in Montana, despite efforts by many groups and corporations. Large scale generation is beyond the scope of this website, and we will be focusing on small generation; typically 10 kilowatts (kW) or less, which is connected to the electric grid. It is also not possible to address each aspect of small generation in detail within this limited space, but we hope to touch on the most important points you should consider that will help you move ahead with your project, or step back and reconsider.
Is renewable energy practical for me?
Small renewable energy systems can be used either in connection with the local electricity transmission and distribution system (called grid-connected systems), or stand-alone applications that are not connected to the utility grid. A grid-connected renewable can reduce consumption of utility-supplied electricity for lighting, appliances, and electric heat by supplying some or all of the power consumption when the generator is operating. If the alternative energy source cannot deliver the amount of energy you need, when you need it, the utility makes up the differences. When your system produces more electricity than the household requires, the excess can be delivered to the grid. With the interconnection technology available today, this power flow takes place automatically. Stand-alone wind energy systems can be appropriate for homes, farms, or even entire communities (a co-housing project, for example) that are far from the nearest utility lines. Either type of system can be practical depending on the existing conditions.
Important points to understand
Build close to a power line – Power lines are costly! Unless you plan to be totally isolated from the power grid, make sure you are within 100 feet of a single-phase grid, make sure you are within 100 feet of a single-phase meter. For more information, check with Marias River Electric.
For wind, build high – While the majority of Montana has excellent wind generation potential, it does’t make sense to put your generator in a valley or behind a hill blocking the prevailing wind. Increasing the elevation of the wind turbine above the surrounding land can make a profound increase in your power-generating potential. Average annual wind speed for your location should be at least 10 mph.
Net metering - Be sure to read and understand your cooperative’s Net Metering agreement. In net metering, the cooperative provides supplemental power supply when your generator is not meeting all of your consumption needs. When your generator is producing more power than you need, that surplus is delivered to the grid and “netted” against the amount of power delivered to you at other times. If you can “net meter” your generated power against the amount of power needed for your home, the economics of your wind project can be greatly improved. Costs such as the high-voltage grid, back-up generation, distribution lines and maintenance are typically “bundled” into the kilowatt-hour (kwh charge on your monthly bill. Net metering allows you to avoid paying for those non-electricity costs and can be critical to the economics of your wind project. You still get these services, but the cost of those services is borne by other consumers.
Understand your power rate – Your cooperative’s retail rate is substantially less than the average cost of producing power by a small generator. Today, the generated cost of renewable energy generators is between seven and 20 cents per kWh. Generator costs range around $300 per kW of capacity. Return on your investment may never occur, or may be decades into the future.
Choose your generator carefully – As with any equipment, there are dramatic differences in types and brands of wind generators. Make sure your choice will withstand the extreme conditions sometimes experienced in Montana. Check with others who already have a similar unit.
Building costs – Make sure you understand building codes and permitting, especially if you plan to construct near other residences. Also, make sure you understand your cooperative’s interconnection policy for renewable generation, and consider legal and environmental issues in your area.
Noise issues – Even small wind machines can produce noise that may be objectionable to some people, especially in high-wind conditions. Be aware of this possibility.
Tax credit possibilities – There are federal as well as state tax credits available for some wind and solar projects. There are also several grant and loan programs that may help fund your project. The sources are listed in the contact section.
Wind-electric pumping – Renewable energy pumping systems for stock purposes can be very cost-effective when compared against the cost of extending distribution lines to remote areas and should be considered separately from grid- tied systems discussed here.
You can have varied resources within the same property. If you live in complex terrain, take care in selecting the installation site. If you site a wind turbine on the top or on the windy side of a hill, for example, you will have more access to prevailing winds than in a gully or on the leeward (sheltered) side of a hill on the same property. Consider existing obstacles and plan for future obstructions, including trees and buildings, which could block the wind or sun in the case of photovoltaic. Also realize that the power available in the wind increases proportionally to its speed (velocity) cubed (V3). This means that the amount of power you get from your generator goes up exponentially as the wind speed increases. For example, if your site has an annual average wind speed of about 12.6 mph (5.6 meters per second), it has twice the energy available as a site with a 10 mph (4.5 meter per second) average.
A renewable energy system can be a good long-term investment. However, because circumstances such as electricity rates and interest rates vary, you need to decide whether purchasing an alternative energy system is a smart financial move. Be sure you or your financial adviser conduct a thorough analysis before you buy a renewable energy system.