“Today we are seeing a great example of forward-thinking leadership,” Governor Steve Bullock said at the Ravalli Electric Cooperative’s grand opening celebration for its Valley Solar project.

“Your customers spoke and you listened,” Bullock said. “As a result, not only are you meeting the expectations of your customers and harnessing home-grown energy from the sun, but you’ve put more Montanans to work in doing so – from the local electricians to the Montana company that fabricated the racks.”

Thursday’s event was a celebration of the completion of the first community solar project in the Bitterroot Valley and the third in the state of Montana, behind Flathead Electric Co-op and Missoula Electric Co-op.

Over 60 people, including 40 Valley Solar program participants, attended the ribbon cutting ceremony north of Woodside near the REC substation. The Valley Solar project is two sets of 88 panel solar arrays that were began working on April 5 and have already produced 10,153 kilowatt-hours, enough energy to serve nine homes for a month.

Mark Grotbo, general manager of the Ravalli Electric Co-op, thanked everyone for helping to celebrate “this exciting chapter in Ravalli Electric’s history.”

In January of 2015, the REC surveyed its members and found they supported the installation of solar panels. Last fall, co-op members purchase the equivalent electrical output of one solar panel and will benefit with a reduction in their power bill each April for 25 years. Some members have purchased more than one panel. There are 28 panels available.

Grotbo said REC is a co-operative, nonprofit entity designed to serve the consumers.

“They are the owners and operators,” he said. “Hat’s off to our members for purchasing the output of a panel, especially when the economics are longer-term but looking into the future of things to come. Without your investment, thought, support and enthusiasm, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Valley Solar program participant Nancy Spagnoli said she is all about alternative energy.

“We were in the process of researching solar for our home when this opportunity came up,” Spagnoli said. “We said it is the right thing to do and wanted to support it so it educates the world. We were headed down the solar path so the timing was perfect.”

John Walsh, USDA, congratulated the REC for having the vision and completing this project.

Walsh said he spent 33 years in the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2004. He said the main reason we went to Iraq was oil dependence.

“It is important for the United States to be energy independent,” he said. “Every project around the country and Montana that goes up reduces our reliance on overseas oil and fossils fuels around the world.”

Walsh presented REC board member Larry Trexler with a plaque from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“We are pleased to partner with you and your team from Ravalli County Electric,” Walsh said. “The cooperative is a recipient of the Rural Energy of America REAP grant used to assist with the purchase an installation of a solar array. The energy generated will provide renewable energy and feed into the distribution and transmission system to supply electricity to coop members. Your project will increase the private sector’s supply of renewable energy and decrease energy costs for your co-op members.”

When the sun came out during his speech, Bullock said, “What better day to cut the ribbon than when we know these solar panels are generating at high capacity.”

Bullock said he knows he is lucky to live in Montana where we have a population of a million people and host 11 million visitors each year.

“They are coming to enjoy what we love,” he said. “We can be proud of our contributions to the economic health and success of our region and nation. The production and export of energy from Montana provides good paying jobs for Montana from coal, water, wind and solar. As the future of Montana’s energy development shifts beneath our feet we’ll all have to work together to recognize that full potential.”

Reach reporter Michelle McConnaha at 363-3300 or michelle.mcconnaha@ravallirepublic.com.