MELVILLE — Andrew and Hilary Anderson take great pleasure in raising healthy animals and stewarding their land. As managers of the J Bar L Ranches, they juggle mending fences, feeding cattle, raising their family of four kids and overseeing the water and energy needs for their operation.

On a bright day this summer, beneath the craggy Crazy Mountains, the sun shone down on the rolling prairie hills and upon the cottonwoods that shade the Sweetgrass River. From the roof of J Bar L’s barn, a glint of glass reflected from where newly installed solar panels convert sunlight into electricity for powering lights, running power tools and pumping water to stock tanks for the little over a thousand cows that will winter on their ranch in Melville, north of Big Timber. 

These panels, a core part of J Bar L’s new 83kW solar system, will provide nearly 100% of the 8,000-acre ranch’s electrical use. The system is projected to save the Andersons more than $13,000 on their annual energy bill from Northwestern Energy while reducing the ranch’s reliance on energy created in the coal-fired generators at Colstrip.

Andrew Anderson, far right, and neighbors gather cattle for branding and vaccinations on the J Bar L’s ranch in Melville. Credit: Anthony Pavkovich / MTFP

“It feels much better to be moving in this direction when it comes to fossil fuels,” Andrew Anderson told Montana Free Press. “We have a significant carbon footprint, and anywhere we can address some of our energy use is part of our mission.”

With a $49,637 federal grant from the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP), J Bar L is cutting into a significant component of its carbon footprint and building resilience into its power supply. 

REAP provides grants and loans to eligible rural and agricultural businesses to support energy efficiency and renewable energy development. Initially established by Congress through the farm bill in 2002, REAP is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

According to the USDA, businesses must cover the entire cost of the solar system but are partially reimbursed upon completion if receiving a grant. REAP grants can cover up to 50% of the cost of installing a solar system to help farmers and small businesses power their operations or, when combined across loans and grants, REAP can cover up to 75% of a project.

Besides solar, REAP grants and loans can fund small hydro or wind power projects and can provide funding for higher-efficiency heating, ventilation, insulation or irrigation.

James Ermoian, a lead installer with Harvest Solar, checks to make sure the newly installed solar panel is securely attached to the roof of one of the barns at J Bar L’s ranch in Melville. This array of panels will provide power to light around the corrals and in the barn, to heat water tanks in winter and to occasionally run power tools. Credit: Anthony Pavkovich / MTFP

With the passage of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, funding for the REAP has grown to more than $2 billion. 

According to Makenna Sellers, the executive director of the Montana Renewable Energy Association (MREA), her team has been fielding a growing number of calls because of interest in REAP. MREA is a nonprofit that provides guidance and education around renewable energy projects and funding. 

“The Inflation Reduction Act funding has really driven that interest,” Sellers said. “If there is a ranch that is considering solar, we’re here to be a resource.”

Over the last few years, REAP funding has been awarded to a growing number of ranchers and farmers across the state, including Alan Weaver in Big Sandy, 71 Ranch in Martinsdale, 52 Ranch in Lindsey and Cayuse Livestock in Melville, as well as others.

Further saving ranchers and farmers money is the ability for small-scale, private energy projects — including solar panels, small wind turbines and small-scale hydro — to tie into the power grid through a process called net metering. 

During times of energy surplus, net metering provides utility customers credits that can be used against a power bill on cold winter days or long stretches of cloudy skies. 

“Net metering is a credit system, and no cash is exchanged,” Sellers said. “For every kW hour you generate onsite, you get that credited against your power bill.”

James Ermoian, left, and Garret McCarty wrap up installing a 39 solar panel array on one of the barns at J Bar L’s ranch in Melville. Their boss at Harvest Solar, Kyle MacVean, estimates that by exporting excess electricity to the state’s power grid, J Bar L’s system will pay for itself after four to five years. Credit: Anthony Pavkovich / MTFP

Customers can request a net meter from their utility provider, which allows any energy not used by the customer to be exported back to the electric grid. Currently, Northwestern Energy customers like the Andersons are credited for each kW hour produced.

Kyle MacVean, co-owner of Harvest Solar Montana, guided the Andersons through their application for a REAP grant to cover part of the cost of the solar installation and is excited that rural businesses can also use net metering to offset the cost of solar projects. 

“The goal is to make it so they have no power bill throughout the year,” MacVean said. 

MacVean estimated that by exporting excess electricity to the state’s power grid, J Bar L’s system will pay for itself after four to five years.

Craig Gariepy, an electrician with Harvest Solar, wires the connections between solar panels that make up one of the four arrays installed on J Bar L’s ranch in Melville. Credit: Anthony Pavkovich / MTFP

Harvest Solar installed two roof-mounted solar arrays on J Bar L’s barns and two ground-mounted solar arrays in the ranch’s pastures — one with a footprint the size of two semi-trailers and the other the size of a tractor. These systems are guaranteed with a 25-year warranty and are battery ready in case the ranch wants to one day add energy storage capabilities to the system. 

“With REAP, it ended up being a pretty affordable project,” MacVean said.

The J Bar L’s solar system is not the only REAP-funded project in the unincorporated town of Melville. Just up the road is Cayuse Livestock, which installed three arrays in 2019 and inspired the Andersons to consider solar on their ranch. 

Wyatt Donald, who works on his family’s multigenerational ranch, said that, for the most part, he’s glad they applied for REAP and got their arrays installed when they did. Though REAP grants covered a smaller percentage of projects before the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, he estimates the ranch will pay off its system by 2025 or 2026.

“The nice thing, though, we haven’t paid a power bill since,” Donald said. 

If other ranchers and farmers are considering applying for funding through REAP, Donald’s advice is to be prepared for a bunch of paperwork on the front end and to select a good contractor, especially one who knows the ins and outs of the grant process.

After 15 years with J Bar L, Anderson is looking forward to seeing the ranch’s power bill dip or disappear. It’s a step that aligns with his and his wife’s stewardship ethic and one he’s curious to see other neighbors consider. 

“If people are feeling like they don’t have time for this, it’s pretty darn straightforward,” Anderson said. “Anyone, anywhere can be set up for capturing solar.”

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Anthony Pavkovich's writing and photography have appeared in local and regional outlets including High Country News, the Billings Gazette, Big Sky Journal, Outside Bozeman, Mountain Outlaw, and Montana Quarterly. His work explores the legacy of resource development in our communities, food systems, and landscapes as well as the deep connections between people and the places they call home. He’s been documenting stories of the American West since he first moved to Montana over a decade ago to work on small, family-run farms and ranches. Captivated by his desire to better understand his backyard,...