All About SB 399: Montana Community Solar Act

Montanans are feeling the impacts of rising energy costs. Power bills have risen dramatically over the last year, and we’re expecting even more rate increases in the coming months. There is a tried and tested solution called Community Solar that can help provide relief.

SB 399, sponsored by Sen. Chris Pope (D-Bozeman), would enable a Community Solar program in Montana. Community Solar allows multiple households, buildings, or businesses to share a single solar array. Participating customers could individually purchase shares of the larger community solar array. Each month they would receive a credit on their power bill equal to their share of the energy generated. 

Right now, Montanans don’t have the freedom to choose the energy they want because we’re burdened with twentieth century regulations for twenty-first century technology. Current state government regulations prevent people from accessing low cost energy. However, community solar is available to everyone: businesses, homeowners, and renters. Everyone deserves the freedom to choose low cost energy, and enabling community solar gives Montanans that freedom! 

Key Points

  • Community solar is a tried and tested program. Community solar is already enabled in 21 states, plus Washington DC; Montana would be the 23rd to enable community solar. Additionally, at least nine rural electric co-ops in Montana already enjoy the benefit of community solar. Each of these programs has incredible demand for subscriptions!
  • 100% Voluntary. This program is 100% voluntary, on the part of the utilities and energy customers. Montana’s utilities can choose to operate a program, and customers can choose whether or not they would like to participate. 
  • Customers can choose how large a share they want to purchase. For example, if a customer purchased a 15% share of the community solar facility, their energy bill would reflect a credit equal to 15% of the energy generated from the facility. 
  • Utilities, non-profits, for-profits can operate community solar facilities. In addition to allowing Montana’s utilities to build and run a community solar program, SB 399 enables private-public partnerships, non-profits, or for-profit businesses to build community solar facilities, sign up subscribers, and connect those community solar facilities to the utility grid. 
  • Community Solar is accessible for all. Many Montanans don’t have the means to install their own rooftop solar array. Community solar allows those who rent, or don’t have a roof suitable for solar the freedom to access this cost saving program.

Frequently Asked Questions

Rooftop solar provides solar power to one customer and is located on site at that customer’s home, business, ranch, etc. Community solar allows multiple customers to “plug in” to one community array that may not be located onsite. With community solar you don’t need to own your home or business to take advantage of solar power. The program is accessible to renters and anyone with a utility bill!

Community Solar allows multiple households, buildings, or businesses to share a single solar array. Participating customers would purchase “shares” of the larger community solar array. Each month they would receive a credit on their power bill equal to their share of the energy generated. For example, one customer might decide to purchase 3 panels of a larger community array. They would then receive the credit on their power bill each month for the energy generated from 3 panels. Another customer might choose to purchase 5 panels, and another 1 panel. Each would receive a credit on their power bill for their corresponding share.

Community solar makes energy savings accessible to more Montanans. While many Montanans would like to save money on their power bills by choosing solar, too many barriers exist. Some can’t afford the upfront costs associated with a rooftop installation, and others might not own their home. For others still, their property and roof might not be conducive for solar. Community solar allows these people to invest in solar and lower their power bills without installing an individual array. 

While power bills continue to rise, community solar gives power companies a program to offer their customers to lower their bills. 

Community solar is part of a solution to address affordable housing. Many folks live in old and inefficient buildings in need of upgrades. But those upgrades can be expensive. Community solar is another tool to offset rising energy costs, making housing more affordable.

There are three parties involved in implementing a community solar program in Montana: 

  • The utility: The electric company is responsible for delivering all electricity to your home and applying your community solar credits to your bill. 
  • The subscriber organization: The subscriber organization is the operator of the community solar array, and is responsible for supporting participants, and reporting participants’ shares of the solar energy to the utility. The utility can also be the subscriber organization, or a 3rd party dedicated to operating a community solar program can be the subscriber organization.
  • The customer subscriber: A customer participating in a community solar program.

Net metering is a billing tool that allows solar customers to receive a credit on their bill for any excess energy that their rooftop solar array generates. At the end of the month, the customer is billed for the “net” energy they have used from their power company. Similarly with community solar, a customer will receive a credit on their monthly utility bill for the energy produced by their share of the community solar array. A community solar customer will be billed for the energy they use from their power company that month, minus their community solar credits.

Customers of NorthWestern Energy and Montana Dakota Utilities can participate in community solar whether they are homeowners, renters, ranchers, businesses, schools, non-profits, etc. 

Importantly, customers who already have rooftop solar or are already net metering with NorthWestern Energy or Montana Dakota utilities cannot participate in community solar. This program is intended for customers who are unable, for whatever reason, to invest in their own individual rooftop solar array.

No. Customers who already net meter with their utility are not eligible for community solar.

If a community solar customer moves away from the service territory of their utility, they are no longer credited for their shares of the array and those shares are purchased by another customer in that utility service territory. 

If you relocate, but are still in the same utility service territory as before, you can transfer your community solar credits to apply to your new utility bill.

Yes! The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act extends the income tax credit for solar installations to community solar.

Community solar arrays can be located anywhere within the service territory of a public utility. So for customers of NorthWestern Energy looking to offset their bills with community solar, the array must be located in NorthWestern Energy’s service territory. Same goes for Montana Dakota Utilities. 

Yes! Anyone who pays a utility bill with either NorthWestern Energy or Montana Dakota Utilities could take advantage of community solar.

No. Solarize Campaigns are “group purchases” that bring neighbors together to leverage their collective buying power for competitive pricing on rooftop solar installations. With these group purchases, the members are buying their own solar systems and installing the panels on their roofs (or sometimes on their garages or farm land). Learn more about our Solarize Campaigns here.

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