Author Archives: mbradford

Check Out this Net Zero Habitat for Humanity Home!

SBS Solar is super excited to show you the latest Habitat for Humanity of Ravalli Co home in Stevensville, Montana.  This is an all-electric home with new energy star appliances, LED lighting and a very well insulated envelope.

With a $17,000 grant from NorthWestern Energy, SBS Solar was able to install a 30 module, 7.5kWh array with a grid tie inverter and an air source heat pump. We installed this system in December and made the final tie into the grid and installed a net meter on January 2nd.


As of this writing 5 months later, the system has made more power than what the home used thru the building process.  We utilized electric, milk house, resistant type heaters to keep our workers warm and set the drywall mud.  We eventually installed an air source heat pump in March, after the coldest period of winter.

Now that the family has moved in we will see how well all the systems preform and the actual electric usage. Depending on this power usage, we will see if they are actually netting the big Zero at the end of the year.

It was a lot of fun, and a honor, being part of the design and building of what is possibly the first net zero home in Western Montana.

Massive Solar PV System for Bitterroot Valley Farm

This Solar PV system in the Bitterroot Valley in Western Montana utilizes two banks of sealed batteries (right side of photo) of 48 volts and 2,400 amp hour rating. Resulting in total capacity of 4,800 amp hours.  This equates to 230,400 watt hours of storage.

The left wall holds six solar controllers which regulate the sub-arrays charging, three inverters, associated switch gear. The inverters are battery based yet sell excess energy not used by the farm back to the grid.  We included a number of transfer switches to have the option of operating various buildings totally separate from the grid if wanted.


This is the main solar array of the ABC Farm.  It is comprised of 60 each, 250 watt modules for a 15,000 watt array.  Another 30 modules are located on the processing building to the West.  The arrays are wired through six controllers and all feed the central battery bank.

Biodiesel Co-op for Missoula & Bitterroot Valleys?

Although our focus here at SBS is Solar Photovoltaic’s, we cannot easily utilize this energy source with our vehicles when we drive long distances, not yet anyway. Enter Biofuels and within this biodiesel. This renewable resource is easy to produce and has many advantages, some of which are listed here.2tankprocessor02

  • The cost per gallon is substantially less than conventional diesel even after depreciating the costs of processing equipment
  • Substantially less polluting emissions
  • The carbon consumed by a biodiesel fueled vehicle is already in the carbon cycle.  Biodiesel avoids adding sequestered carbon to the atmosphere
  • Engine life is increased because of the fuels increased lubricity
  • Mileage and performance are comparable to slightly less the petroleum based diesel
  • Biodiesel compatible vehicles (2006 diesel vehicles and earlier) can run on concentrations from 100% to 0 % and can be switched between fuels with no preparation.
  • Home brewing biodiesel is relatively common with much information and equipment available on the internet
  • Used vegetable fryer oil is readily available at low to no cost, save for collection labor


  • More labor involved
  • 2007 and later vehicles can run on concentrations of 20% biodiesel or less
  • Gasoline engines cannot operate on biodiesel
  • Biodiesel has a higher gel point so winter blends will include a percentage of petro- based diesel.
  • Not readily available for consumers
  • Users are typically fuel brewers which increases ones responsibility to produce clean fuel 

Personal experience with Bio

MacadamiaNut_BI started producing biodiesel in 2012. I purchased two used processors and rebuilt them through much research and trial and error. I have successfully operated two Dodge Cummins trucks with 100% to 50% bio. I also drive a VW Passat with the TDI engine to commute to work some 105 round trip miles daily. I did have to change out two vehicles for earlier (pre 2007) built equipment.  The only issues I have had are changing the fuel filters more often and one plugged up dodge fuel pump which I replaced.

Concerning oil availability, I have 7 different restaurants I collect oil from and presently have more supply than I use.  My cost for used veggie oil is .21 cents per gallon when I average the free oil with those I pay a small fee.  This brings my total cost per gallon to .97 cents per gallon which includes all my variable costs excluding my time.  The processing equipment will pay for itself in less than two years. Depending on the degree of automation, these units cost me from $1,500 to $6,000.



One of the big advantages for me personally is reducing my demand for imported oil and all the issues this creates around the world. I have implemented numerous technologies in our home and farm to reduce our emissions, conserve resources and save money. Vehicle use has always been a sticking point as we have four vehicles and use them extensively with several businesses we operate. So it is quite enjoyable to pass by the gas stations, even if it does require more labor on my part.

Are Missoulians and the Bitterrooters ready for a Biodiesel co-op?

If this is of interest I would enjoy talking with you.  Many communities in Washington and Oregon have active co-ops where members can contribute at differing levels and all benefit from a steady source of bio.  Email me at

Dan Brandborg

GM, SBS Solar

Off-Grid home goes Hybrid Grid-Tied Battery-based Solar PV System


6-panel pole-mounted array, part of a grid-tied, battery-backed solar PV system in Nine Mile Valley, Montana.

This six module system was a bit different for the SBS crew. The owners have lived in this beautiful off-grid home perched on a knoll in the timbered Ninemile Valley for some time. For 13 years they have been happy with a solar/battery/generator system as it supplied all of the electrical needs. They had the opportunity to bring in grid power last year and shared the line extension cost with a neighbor.

This summer they suffered a lightning strike making landfall on two Ponderosa pines some 40 feet from the solar array. The surge of electricity blew the bypass diodes on the modules and the controller on the propane generator. Fortunately, it did not affect the batteries, the inverter or charge controller.

Since we now had grid power to the site and we were replacing equipment anyhow, the owners decided they wanted a grid tied, battery based inverter installed. This gives them the best of all power worlds in that they have batteries for emergency power and can also sell back excess power they do not need. Remember, standard off grid battery based systems receive a huge variation of power between summer and winter. In winter our light levels are low to where we can easily use all the power our solar arrays generate. Unlike summer when most off grid systems completely charge the batteries by early in the day and the solar modules are effectively turned off for the balance of the day. Not so when we include a grid connected inverter in the system. With this addition we can keep the modules operating at full generation and send this power back through the electric meter, creating credits for later use.

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This in effect, gives us the benefit of annual storage of our solar power, something that solar enthusiasts have dreamed about, especially those who live in the Northwest where we have huge variations of insolation through the year.

Bimodal Solar PV, Grid-tied & Off-grid Combo, Close to Missoula

9 kW array, just outside Missoula, Montana

SBS Solar was really excited to work on this bimodal system.  It is just a few minutes from downtown Missoula, and the customer wanted to be fully self sufficient when the grid was down.  The customer had a slightly higher then average residential load so we sized a 36 module Canadian Solar CS6P 250P for a total of 9 kW system capable of supplying over 10 Mega watt hours annually.
We used eight of the 6 volt Unigy II 1016 amp hour Gel batteries for storage.  At over 400 lbs a piece just getting the batteries in the basement was a feat for four strong guys.  We were concerned about the end nailed stair treads giving it up with the weight we were applying, but thankfully no issues.

6 volt Unigy II 1016 amp hour Gel batteries for storage, at over 400 lbs a piece!

We used the most advanced charge controller on the market (the Xantrex XW MPPT 80 600) capable of converting up to 550 volts DC from the array to battery bank voltages allowing us to use large strings of up to 12 modules in series.  This was a huge benefit on this system allowing us to achieve less then 2% loss running four strings of 10 gauge wire on a 250′ home run instead of 12 strings of 4 gauge with a standard 150 volt max controller with a dramatic cost difference.

Xantrex XW MPPT 80 600 Controller, Two Xantrex XW6048 inverters, Xantrex XW PDP Power Distribution Panel, and SCP System Control Panel

We used two of the Xantrex XW6048 inverters to supply the home, charge the batteries from the generator, and backfeed the utility from the PV Array for a total of 12,000 watts so there is room to grow in the future.  The combiners, disconnects, Xantrex XW PDP Power Distribution Panel, and SCP System Control Panel completed the system.  The Xantrex XW SCP allowed us to program the inverters and charge controllers to perform the complicated tasks of keeping our batteries happy through all temperatures, feeding critical loads during a power outage, and back feeding the power meter when the grid is up and the sun shining.
Our customer shut his power off the first weekend to see how the system would keep up with his usage and was very pleased with the power production.  When using the system off grid to power the critical load panel it only pulls as much juice from the array as is necessary to keep up with the loads and keep the batteries charged that weekend he only used approximately a third of his capacity.
This was a great system for the SBS Solar to complete, as we finished up just before installing the 22.5 kW Xantrex XW system in Hamilton with 5 times the battery capacity.  That post is coming soon!

The State of the Solar Grant in Missoula, And Beyond…

There has been much talk about solar grants in our region this summer.  It’s no secret that solar sales were up by near triple in first quarter for most solar installers in the greater Missoula and Western Montana region, as seen in this article in April 2012 in the Missoula Independent.  And then the grants suddenly went dry in July of this year.  Another article in the Indy shares the details.

Here’s the gist:

  • Northwestern Energy gave out $3/watt up to 2000 watts (or 2kw) for grid-tied Solar PV installs in their territory.  This amounted to the $6000 grant folks would commonly ask for.
  • After the 2010 election, some state legislatures threatened to cut the state tax credits of $500/tax payer, $1000/couple, but it stood true.  And the 30% Federal tax credit remained strong.
  • In 2011, hard costs dropped nearly 40% for Solar PV, taking that $6k grant on a 2kW from a 30% coverage on an $18.5K system to a 50-60% coverage of install total on that same 2kW system, now costing under $11K.
  • By early 2012, solar energy was hitting an all time high in popularity on a national and global scale – everything from solar in China and India to solar on the White House, to solar farms in the southwest and solar financing companies popping up.

At this point at SBS Solar, like most local installers, we were selling our grants faster than we could get them.  At the same time, Northwestern Energy was having more requests than ever for solar grants, especially in the Missoula area, and they were maxing out their grant fund.  This, coupled with the drastic drop in pricing, brought things to a (temporary?) standstill in early summer of this year.

What we do know is that Northwestern Energy asked the MREA for a recommendation on how to proceed.  We at SBS Solar, and many of our fellow installers, weighed in with similar sentiments.  Cut the grants per watt in half to $1.50, but keep the maximum grant at $6000.  This would mean that a 2kW system now gets a $3000 grants ,and someone could get a $6000 grant for a 4kW system.   This would be awesome!  A triple-bottom-line here: Customers get a great grant and are now incented to go with a larger system instead of stopping at 2kW, Installers are now selling larger systems (and perhaps more often) and Northwestern Energy is getting double the renewable energy put back into their grind for half the cost, thereby getting them to their renewable energy mandate faster.


So…. here we with no grants, a state tax credit and a federal tax credit that could be in jeopardy depending on the outcome of the November election, and little action in the market.

Enter the SBS Solar Private Solar Rebate.  We are offering a rebate for solar customers that is competitive with the aforementioned MREA recommendation to Northwestern Energy.  Roughly $1.50/watt.  We also have two different solar financing options, one state sponsored and one private.

If you’re interested in solar today, don’t wait for an answer until November (at the earliest), when you can get our rebate today:  406-541-8410.  Ask for Dan.

Is Solar Thermal Dead?

This is a great article… thought provoking with good information… suggesting that perhaps Solar Thermal is dead, unless you’re a laundromat or a college campus.

Now that PV rates have some down substantially, combined with various state and utility incentives, as well as federal tax credits, the article suggests it cheaper to heat w/ Solar PV rather than with Thermal.

We’ll followup to this post in a week or two with the numbers from Missoula and Montana so see if this actually makes sense in our area, or not.

Until then, enjoy the article… and let us know what you think in the comments below.




Thoughts from our Intern: MT Renewable Energy Factoids

Our Energy Intern/Office Manager, Nick Bowman, recently gave this short talk for one of his classes at UM.  We thought it made for an interesting blog post which has some talking points about renewable energy you might not have heard or might find interesting or useful:

Montana, with its huge potential for renewable energy, could do more to use its resources to help strengthen the economy.

Montana is currently ranked 22nd in the nation for the amount of renewable energy produced, yet has enough available resources to become 3rd in the nation if properly developed and invested.

Montana potential for wind is due to its topography. High mountains combined with spacious plains are perfect for developing wind farms. Wind Energy alone has enough power to produce 370 times the amount of electricity used by the state. Here is a great potential for economic growth.

In places where buildings are a barrier, as they decrease the amount of wind which can be harvested, we could use solar power to create renewable energy gains.  We need to increase the monetary incentives for solar installation, particularly in light of the cancelation of energy grants by Northwestern Energy.

Montana is also one of 13 states which can produce energy from geothermal hot spots. The technology of geothermal is constantly improving and needs to be developed in order for this technology to be effective without compromising the environment.

Yet with all this in mind Montanas still spend 4.7 billion dollars to produce fossil fuels every year.

Increased implementation of green energy is only possible through the contribution of the average American who wants to better this great nation. Political activism, alternative energy advocacy and service are among the few ways which people can contribute to helping renewable energy succeed in this struggling economy. I would recommend that, if nothing else, each and every person reminds their representatives that they support sustainable energy.

Let’s make a difference.

Nick Bowman

Top Solar PV Testimonial, Ever.

(What follows is quite possible the best Solar PV testimonial we could ever ask for.  With pictures!  We hope you agree.)


SBS Solar
401 South Orange St, Unit C
Missoula MT 59801

Dear SBS Solar:

Solar PV Pergoal, Central Missoula, Montana

I’m writing to share my great experience with your company and my 100% solar-powered home. In the fall of 2011, SBS installed a 24 panel, 6 kW, grid-tied solar PV system at my home in central Missoula. Because my house had additions, I don’t have one flat surface for the panels, so SBS hired subcontractors to design and install a covered back porch structure for the panels. I started producing all of my own power in the early spring and now in the summer am producing 50% morepower than I need. I will receive a credit for this extra power and it will mitigatethe power use in December or January when I might be producing as little as 30%of own my power.

100% Solar powered electric car, from home Solar PV system in Missoula, Montana

I recently installed more efficient appliances, and thus I will probably producemore power than I use this year. This surplus of power led me to decide to lease a 100% electric car, which will be 100% solar-powered car for at least 6 or 8 monthsout of the year.

I felt compelled to act because we can’t afford to ignore the signs of climate change or the role we play in it. I feel a moral obligation to reduce my carbon footprint, to protect biodiversity and protect the planet for future generations. Can you imagine the reduction of coal and oil consumption we could achieve if every family in Western Montana had a solar-powered home and solar-powered electric car? Maybe mega-loads, tar sands mining, and Otter Creek coal mining would all become unnecessary. The technology is available and ready for this now inWestern Montana.

The cost breakdown for my solar system:


Materials and installation for PV system: $28,570
New back porch structure:$8,640
Engineering of structure:$1,643
City building permit for structure:$285
Relocation of power/gas lines for structure:$3,605
Electric panel relocation:$620
GROSS Total:$43,363

Northwestern Energy Grant ($6,000)
Federal Tax Credit($11,208)
State Tax Credit($500)
NET Total including structure:$25,655


Materials and installation for PV system: $28,570
Northwestern Energy Grant ($6,000)
State Tax Credit($500)
Federal Tax Credit($8,625)
NET Total excluding structure:$13,625

So essentially, the solar system had a net cost of less than $14,000 for 100% annual power.

The system will eventually pay itself off and then the power I use in my home and the “fuel” I use for my car will be free. While this is certainly a meaningful reward, for me the bigger reward is knowing that my decision to choose an alternative to coal and oil is a concrete physical step toward a safer planet for future generations. As Terry Tempest Williams has said: “The eyes of the future are looking back at us and they are praying for us to see beyond our own time. They are kneeling with hands clasped that we might act with restraint, that we might leave room for the life that is destined to come.”

Thank you for the important work you are doing.


Rebecca Smith
(contact info withheld to maintain customer privacy.  Please contact SBS Solar directly for more information)