Figure 1—The 4-kilowatt photovoltaic system installed at the district office. During the first year of operation the photovoltaic cells performed slightly better than the 15 percent capacity factor predicted by NorthWestern Energy.
In Montana, the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest's Madison Ranger District takes sustainability seriously. According to fisheries biologist Chris Riley, the district's Green Plan strives for self-sustaining, low-impact operations in facilities, fleet, and purchasing. It recognizes opportunities within the district for energy conservation and provides solutions to get results.
The district installed two 2-kilowatt photovoltaic solar arrays (figure 1) in 2007. The panels are connected to the power grid, allowing excess electricity to be sold to the local utility provider, offsetting the district's power bill. A grant of $4,000 from the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee (GYCC) helped secure a $19,332 grant from the local utility provider, NorthWestern Energy. The grant included funds for a 4-kilowatt inverter (that converts the DC power produced by the photovoltaic array to AC power) and a backup battery system that serves as an emergency power supply. The final source of funding was $15,000 in engineering funds. NorthWestern Energy contracted the purchase and installation of the panels from Sundance Solar Systems in Red Lodge, MT.
During the first year of operation, the photovoltaic arrays produced about one-third of the electricity used by the district office.
- Plan the location of the array.
- Avoid shadows (trees, wires, and so forth).
- Protect the panels from exposure to north winds.
- Plan the route of wiring from the panels to the inverter. It's best to have the inverter as close to the array as possible.
- Consider convenience when locating the inverter. The Madison Ranger District located the inverter in the basement, where it was protected from the elements and from vandalism and was easy to reach for monthly readings of power production.
- Electrical power to the facility may be disconnected during installation of the panels, affecting phone service and Internet service. Schedule installation when the risk of an interruption in communication services is low (outside of fire season).
- Have at least one employee at the facility, such as a forest facilities engineer, who understands alternative energy systems, inverters, and the building's wiring.
- Adjust the panel's slope every seasonal midpoint between the equinox (March 20 and September 22) and solstice (June 21 and December 21). The dates for adjusting the panels remain the same wherever you are in the United States. The angle of adjustment will vary depending on the latitude of your location.
- Spring adjustment—May 5
- Summer adjustment—August 6
- Fall adjustment—November 7
- Winter adjustment—February 4
Figure 2—A compactor purchased with Forest Service and Madison County funds. The compactor reduces the volume of bottles, containers, and other recyclable plastics to make storage and transportation easier.
The Madison Ranger District's agreement with NorthWestern Energy required the Forest Service to complete certain aspects of the project (digging the trench, installing the foundation and frame). A permit is required for the point connection of the photovoltaic system to the grid as well as an inspection by a master electrician.
Since installation of the panels, the Madison Ranger District has reduced its electrical energy consumption by 40 percent. Although the photovoltaic panels account for only about one-third of this reduction, their installation sparked the implementation of an energy conservation philosophy throughout the district. A 10-kilowatt wind turbine system could produce about 30 percent of the ranger district's current consumption of electric power.
The Madison Ranger District also has other low-cost, sustainable projects: a recycling program for plastic No. 1 (polyethylene terephthalate) and plastic No. 2 (high-density polyethylene) products. The district's xeriscaped grounds contain a pollinator garden.
Recycling plastic is a serious problem for the district because the closest place where plastic can be recycled is Bozeman, MT, more than an hour away. The district proposed a pilot recycling project in cooperation with Madison County and the Headwaters Recycling Cooperative. Using Forest Service and county funds, a small, low-cost compactor (figure 2) was purchased. Beverage and food bottles, containers, dish and laundry detergent bottles, and grocery, trash, and retail bags are compacted into easily manageable bales (figure 3) that are hauled by the county to Bozeman for recycling.
Recent expansion and remodeling of the district's offices provided an opportunity to improve landscaping around the building. The overall plan for the garden and office areas is to bring in native plant species provided by local Montana growers. Xeriscaping uses indigenous plants and grasses or other plants and grasses that are suited for local rainfall patterns. The landscaping project began in 2009 (figure 4) and is expected to be completed in 2011.
Figure 4—Beginning work on the district office landscaping project. Native plants are brought in from local Montana growers to reduce maintenance and watering requirements.
The district's Green Plan outlines opportunities for energy conservation, fleet efficiency, alternative energy production, and water conservation as availability of personnel and funds allow. Some future opportunities include the conversion of the district's heating system to biodiesel, adding fuel-efficient vehicles to the fleet, and installing low-flow toilets and faucets.
For more information on what the Madison Ranger District has done or to see whether the district's approaches will work at your location, contact the district at 406–682–4253.
We're interested in what is happening on your unit. Contact Bob Beckley at 406–329–3996 to share your sustainability solutions with others in the Forest Service.