If all goes according to plan, when skiers glide off Discovery Ski Area’s Anaconda chairlift this winter, the 50-kilowatt solar array that helped power their ascent to the 8,150-foot top of Rumsey Mountain will be in sight.

The milestone will be a big one for Discovery’s President Ciche Pitcher, who first considered solar power for the southwest Montana ski area about five years ago when an installer mentioned a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that helps rural businesses pay for a portion of the cost to install renewable energy projects. It sounded like a good deal to Pitcher, aligning well with his desire to cut a monthly bill that’s been increasing over time and his company’s aim to reduce its impact on the surrounding environment and community.

Pitcher received the solar panels for the array several years ago, but the installer who originally approached him was deterred by the complexity of installing a roughly half-acre solar array on the top of a mountain. Last year, Pitcher contacted a former college football teammate, Joel Robinson, who’d recently opened Carbon Recall Kalispell.


Both parties were excited about the potential partnership, though Robinson now says with a laugh that he “maybe said yes a little bit too soon.” It was the largest, most complex installation he’d taken on up to that point in the company’s young life. (Robinson launched Carbon Recall Kalispell in May of 2021 after working as a gas and diesel distributor for a decade.) Robinson said he couldn’t stop talking about the project he was undertaking with Pitcher, with whom he won a national football championship at the University of Montana in 2001. 

The pair inked a deal the spring of 2022 and then got to work laying the groundwork for the array — literally. A construction crew poured concrete for the installation the day before a late October snowstorm swept through Montana, establishing the base for a great ski season — and putting the installation on hold.

This summer, they continued with the project, setting up racks to support the panels and installing the panels themselves. An electrical inspector signed off on the installation last month, so now all that’s left for Pitcher is completing some paperwork with NorthWestern Energy and switching out his regular electrical meter for a net meter, which will measure the solar array’s generation and the chairlift’s demand in real time. He expects that the panels will feed power into NorthWestern Energy’s utility poles before the first skier of the 2023-2024 season is conveyed up the mountain on the Anaconda, one of the area’s eight lifts.

Initially, Pitcher will still probably have a power bill, albeit a smaller one. By next summer, when long, sunny days roll around, the array will bank electrical credits that will substantially offset power demand when the lift is fully loaded with skiers in the winter. The solar array is expected to cover 70% of the chair lift’s power usage, reducing its annual energy requirements by an estimated 76,000 kilowatt hours and resulting in an annual savings of $11,000. All told, Pitcher estimates the pre-grant, pre-tax break total for the installation to top $82,000.


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Though the solar array has taken longer to install than Pitcher originally anticipated, it might work out for the best in the long run. That’s because a larger percentage of a project’s cost is available for reimbursement with Rural Energy for America, or REAP, funds now than when Pitcher first purchased the panels. The Inflation Reduction Act Congress passed last year has funneled an unprecedented amount of federal funding into initiatives to combat climate change. Allocations included in the legislation range from four-figure tax credits for electric vehicle and heat pump purchases to billion-dollar loans and grants to facilitate the adoption of emerging technologies to power the nation’s grid with carbon-free power.

As a result of the Inflation Reduction Act cash injection, REAP can cover up to 50% of a rural business’ cost for a renewable energy or energy efficiency project, according to Lad Barney, who helps administer the program for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office. Before the IRA, it had topped out at 25%. Most of the $2 billion ear-marked for REAP, Barney said, was “front-loaded” for a year-and-a-half period. Demand for funding for the program, which was first created by the 2002 Farm Bill, has, predictably, expanded. In the past, Barney and his colleagues in Montana might distribute a couple of dozen REAP grants per year; they’ve approved funding for 45 projects through the first half of the 2023 fiscal year. It helps, he added, that applicants can also receive substantial tax credits to recover remaining costs.

Robinson said while those kinds of incentives might not spark an initial interest in solar, they can nudge someone from solar-curious to solar-committed. For his business, the Inflation Reduction Act has served as a “tailwind,” he said.


“I can tell [a business owner] that 50% of a project is a grant and another 30% is a tax credit, so they’re receiving an 80% discount on their project,” he said. “Those kinds of numbers are very motivating for people.”

Pitcher’s decision was inspired by a combination of economics and the larger environmental good. The solar array will build upon past efforts to reduce the ski area’s footprint, which range from obvious measures such as making efficiency upgrades to windows and lights, to using refurbished lifts that larger ski areas did away with when detachable lifts became popular.

“Sometimes it’s hard for a small ski area like us to do the sexy ones,” Pitcher said, “but the thing I’m most proud we were able to do is when my dad was developing the ski area, we used relocated lifts [rather than] all new lifts. … He was a pioneer in doing that.”

“We’re not naive enough to think that if we have a solar array that we’re not now going to have climate change at Discovery,” he continued. “But in the sense that we want to be responsible for reducing our fossil fuel usage at Discovery, yeah, 100% it was a driver.”

Pitcher added that though Granite County where Discovery is located is politically conservative, there’s also a strong independent streak in residents and he anticipates support from skiers who visit from what he calls “the triangle between Helena, Butte and Missoula.”

“We’re not naive enough to think that if we have a solar array that we’re not now going to have climate change at Discovery. But in the sense that we want to be responsible for reducing our fossil fuel usage at Discovery, yeah, 100% it was a driver.”

Discovery Ski Area President Ciche Pitcher

“Private generation is a really good deal,” he said. “My guess is that our skiers are going to be really excited to see us invest in solar technology. It’s a win-win for everybody.”

It’ll happen, he added, just as the ski area his parents Peter and Beatriz acquired when he was 3 years old embarks on its 50th operational year. It might not be the only solar project Pitcher undertakes at Discovery, he added. The ski area has another electrical meter close to the base area that could benefit from some solar-powered electricity to power the main lodge. He plans to run a design he’s sketched by Robinson once the installation at the top of the Anaconda lift is squared away. 

“We’ve got some preliminary stuff done. We’ll start working on the grant or design for that array — maybe this winter or spring,” Pitcher said.


Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...