Solar Panels Sacajawea Middle School

In this May 2018 file photo, Carl Berntsen and Travis Boyer of Bozeman Green Build install 151 solar panels on the roof of Sacajawea Middle School.

Now, more Bozeman schools are going solar. The Bozeman School District opened bids last week for installing 50-kilowatt, rooftop solar systems at Hyalite and Meadowlark Elementary Schools.

Montana’s utility regulators have spared rooftop solar customers a rate hike, which some predicted would decimate the industry.

The Montana Public Service Commission voted unanimously Monday to reject NorthWestern Energy’s proposal to increase rates for customers who net-meter rooftop solar. The proposal was part of a larger rate case the utility filed last year.

Net metering allows people who generate their own electricity to export excess energy to the electric grid for a credit on their electric bill.

Commissioner Roger Koopman said the numbers NorthWestern presented in regard to net metering were not useful or reliable and didn’t comply with the commission’s guidelines. The decision didn’t have much to do with the proposal itself.

“Rather than making a value judgement on (the proposal), we said, ‘You need to go back to the drawing board and bring back better data,’” Koopman said.

The commission invited NorthWestern to bring the issue back in another case.

NorthWestern Energy, Montana’s largest utility company, argued that net-metering unfairly shifts costs associated with using the power grid onto its other customers, and proposed adding an estimated $40 to $45 onto new rooftop solar customer’s bill. Existing solar customers wouldn’t see the new charge.

A spokesperson for NorthWestern could not be reached for comment.

Solar installers and advocates argued the added charge would make solar uneconomical for homeowners and would kill the industry.

Conor Darby, co-founder of OnSite Energy in Bozeman, said his company is thrilled with the commission’s rejection of the proposal.

“I think it’s encouraging just in that the commission and its staff were able to recognize the lack of substantial evidence and data behind the drastic rate changes proposed by NorthWestern Energy,” Darby said.

Darby said he knows the issue will likely come up again, but for now, his company can focus on keeping up with the rapidly growing industry.

Since 2008, the solar industry has increased 35-fold in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And since 2014, the price of solar panels has been cut in half, making installation more affordable for more people. Both technological advances and government policies that favored renewable energy aided in the price drop.

“Of course, in our position in serving this great demand that we see, it’s obviously a great day for our industry and continuing with our growth plans,” Darby said.

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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