50 states of solar incentives: Montana 


Montana is ranked 30th in the U.S. for renewable energy generation, with more than 1.5 GW of wind, solar and storage capacity reserves, while the state sees just shy of 15% of its electricity produced by renewables, according to American Clean Power. Yet through Q4 2022, Montana was ranked 44th in the country for solar installations, with only 133 MW of installed capacity, or enough to power 17,410 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. 

It’s hard to shake the reality of black fossilized lumps. Montana contains the largest coal reserve in the U.S., amounting to 30% of the U.S. total, while the state accounts for 5% of total U.S. coal production, according to the Energy Information Administration.  

With just over one million residents, Montanans enjoy a relatively low cost of energy of 11.81 cents per kWh, and with multi-state and federal pushes for reduced coal power resources, the state could usher in more than 780 MW of new solar generation over the next five years, SEIA reports.  Currently the state obtains 43% of its electricity from coal, 41% from hydro, 12% from wind, and 2% from natural gas and 3% from hydropower—it gets just less than 1% from the sun, per EIA. 


Enacted in 2005, Montana’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requires utilities to acquire at least 15% of the electricity they sell in-state from renewable energy sources by 2015. The mandate was reached by that timeframe thanks to abundant hydro and wind resources.  

Montana has net metering rules, enacted in 1999, that applies to utility customers with systems of up to 50 kW using solar, wind or hydropower. Net excess generation is credited to the customer’s next monthly bill. Net metering legislation does not allow for utility Northwestern Energy customers to participate in aggregate net-metering, which would allow multiple-metered customers like farmers and ranchers to apply their credits. 

NorthWestern Energy has had several lawsuits with solar developers seeking to do business in the state under the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act.  The PURPA law has for 40 years required regulated utilities to offer long-term contracts and a negotiated price to power facilities based on the utility’s avoided cost, which is the cost of either buying the power from another source or the cost of producing the energy itself. 

In several noteworthy lawsuits before the Montana Public Service Commission, including with Cypress Creek Renewables business FLS Energy, NorthWestern stated the cost of buying electricity from solar projects up to 3 MW in capacity at $67 per MWh was indeed less than the $73.85 cost of energy from its coal-fired facilities, but higher than the $58.17 per MWh cost of energy from the state’s abundant hydro power resources. Such moves have continually thwarted the proliferation of solar across the Big Sky Country state.  

Community solar 

Community solar, which is a way for community members to purchase solar energy without having to install solar panels on their home or business, is starting to take shape in Montana.  In February 2022, Senator Chris Pope (D-Bozeman) penned SB-399, which would effectuate a community solar program in Montana. 

Although the community solar legislation did not become law during its latest session on February 28, 2023, at least nine of the state’s 25 rural electric cooperatives are already starting to offer their own shared solar programs, according to advocacy group Northern Plains Resource Council. 

One such rural cooperative, Beartooth Electric, is offering a shared community program, called the Shares du Soleil array, to residents in Carbon, Stillwater and Sweetgrass Counties. The 50.2 kW shared solar array is comprised of 132 solar modules that were deployed in October 2019 on top of a municipal warehouse facility.   

The Soleil system produced 67,603 kWh per year of clean energy in its first year in operation, with credits of 845 kWh per share or $78.07 in energy credit over the year, according to the cooperative’s website. Membership to the shared program costs $750 per user. 

Landmark installation 

Completed in 2017, Magpie Solar is a 4.1 MW(dc) ground-mounted solar facility in Lavina, Montana, assembled by Cypress Creek Renewables. The solar project has enough electric capacity to power more than 569 homes, with NorthWestern Energy purchasing power from the facility under a long-term power purchase agreement.  

Next stop 

The last stop on the pv magazine usa tour of state solar incentives was Nebraska, and next up we’ll head to Kansas. See the full series here. 

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