Summer is in full swing, and naturally our thoughts turn to all the ways we benefit from the season’s sunny days. Barbecues, playing on the river, camping and otherwise spending time outdoors come to mind—but, most importantly for our organization, so does solar energy. From Missoula to Malta, Billings to Butte, Homeword makes the most of Montana’s long summer days by harnessing clean, renewable energy with solar technology.

Seventeen of Homeword’s 29 multi-family residential properties in Montana generate some of their own power with solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. These systems contain solar panels, inverters and other mechanical hardware to absorb sunlight, converting it directly into electricity. It does not produce harmful emissions or pollutants, so its use can significantly reduce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Altogether, Homeword’s solar arrays can produce up to 734 kilowatts in an hour at peak operating conditions, supporting 1,088 homes in 10 different Montana communities. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average U.S. household uses about 30kWh per day. That means our solar generating power could potentially provide all the electricity needed for more than 24 homes.

The first solar array we included in a development project was at Gold Dust in Missoula in 2003.  At that time, the architects hadn’t yet embraced the good looks of a roof-mounted solar system, so the panels were installed flat on the roof so that they couldn’t be seen from the street.  Everyone quickly realized solar and other types of renewable energy are the keys to a healthier, cleaner environment, so the panels were tilted up to meet the sun’s rays a couple years later.

Most of our solar arrays are installed on rooftops, but there are two ground-mounted systems. One is in Great Falls at Soroptimist Village. The other is in Missoula at Sweetgrass Commons. In Great Falls, the combination of the wind and an existing 50-year-old roof structure with an unusual configuration meant that the Soroptimist Village solar array needed to be located on the ground.  While Sweetgrass Commons was new construction and could have been designed to accommodate south-facing solar roof panels, the Icelandic-inspired architecture meant a ground-mounted system was a better choice, and the solar power system became a welcome shade structure for the south-facing patio.

Most of the power we generate through solar is used to provide electricity to the common areas – hallway lighting, site lighting, heating and cooling in common areas, etc.  This provides an indirect benefit to residents because it lowers operating costs, helping to ensure their homes can remain affordable even when rents have skyrocketed across Montana.

In Kalispell, we are trying a different approach at Junegrass Place by using solar power to preheat water that is then circulated to the homes throughout the building, sharing some of the cost savings to the residents. Junegrass Place is still under construction, but so far residents in 72 of the 138 homes at Junegrass are seeing their energy bills lowered because of this.

As we move forward, we will continue to install more solar power systems, working to share the benefits more directly with our residents and create more sustainable communities for all.