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A Mobile, Renewable Power Station
Whitefish company powers concerts with wind and sun
Jeff Arcel describes how their mobile renewable energy trailer gathers power from wind and solar energy. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
WHITEFISH – Jeff Arcel and Tom White call their mobile renewable energy trailer “our cabin in the woods” and “a little office on the job.”

Inside, it looks like a combination of a carpenter’s workspace and a mini power station. On the outside, it has a small wind turbine and solar panel. Energy is captured from the sky, pumped into the trailer’s electrical system and stored in batteries.

Everywhere Arcel and White go, they have power. When they’re on a work site, installing a wind turbine or solar panel system somewhere, they can operate their saws, compressors and other tools without ever turning on a generator. They even use it to power music concerts.

“We’ve got a generator,” Arcel said, “but we’ve never used it.”

Arcel and White are partners in Mother’s Power, a Whitefish-based company dedicated to “renewable energy solutions,” a job description that covers solar, wind and hydro projects.

Arcel and White built the trailer and began using it in December of 2008. Last winter, they hauled it up to Polebridge where they installed what Arcel said is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, solar panel systems in the region. The system powers the Polebridge Mercantile and Northern Lights Saloon.

It was a several-month project, in the coldest time of the year, but with a propane heater inside, the trailer served well as both a “cabin the woods” and “office on the job.” White said, if he wanted, he could comfortably run televisions and other household appliances off the amount of energy generated by the trailer.

For the past two years, the Mother’s Power trailer has also provided energy for bands playing at the Whitefish Farmers Market. On a recent Tuesday, Arcel and White pulled the trailer behind a truck to Depot Park, unhitched it and connected it to the stage’s equipment.

When musicians from the North Valley Music School arrived, all they had to do was plug in and start playing. White figures a band could play off of the batteries’ stored power for the better part of a day.

So far, nobody has drained the battery, not even when a full slate of bands played at the Harvest Festival in Hot Springs last year. Mother’s Power will again provide power for the Harvest Festival on Sept. 17-19, as well as at a Hugh Rogers WAG Park celebration on Sept. 12 in Whitefish.

Energy collected by the solar panel is transferred to and stored in batteries located within the trailer. Also found in the trailer are an inverter and a control system monitoring voltage. If there is enough wind, the wind turbine overrides the solar panel and the system begins utilizing wind-derived energy, White said.

Over the course of two to three hours in the morning, the batteries can build up enough juice to provide power at a Mother’s Power worksite for two days, White said. The key, he said, is having an idea of how much energy they’re going to need for a certain period of time.

“When you flip the switch and it all works, it’s pretty interesting,” White said. “It makes for a wonderful day.”

At the Whitefish Farmers’ Market last week, White noted: “It’s a gray day at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, and we’re up and going.”

Arcel has been in the renewable energy business for years, though White is fairly new to it. White said his mechanical expertise complements Arcel’s energy knowledge. They form a good team.

“You need a brain and you need a shovel,” White said. “It’s an extremely interesting line of work.”

In addition to the Polebridge solar panel system, Mother’s Power has been involved with a number of other renewable energy projects in the past couple of years, with more on the way.

The two-man company is currently working with the city of Whitefish to bring an abandoned hydropower plant back to life. The plant, located just north of Whitefish near the city’s water treatment facility, has good working infrastructure but requires some renovation for use, since it has been untouched for nearly two decades.

Mother’s Power was commissioned by the city to research information about the plant and author a feasibility report. Following Arcel’s report, the city decided to move forward with tapping into the plant’s hydroelectric potential.

John Wilson, public works director, said last week the city has received a $200,000 stimulus grant for the hydropower project through the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Wilson said the city is now in negotiations with Flathead Electric Cooperative for a power-purchase agreement.

Arcel said it is clear that “people are waking up to what renewable energy can do for them.” He motioned to the trailer as an example of renewable energy’s surprising capabilities.

“People don’t think it can work here, but this shows that it does.”
 
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