Going solar

By Rez Gopez-Sindac

Both for theological and practical reasons, more and more churches in America are advocating for green electricity.

Churches go “green” as an act of obedience to what they believe is God’s call to care for the environment. Thankfully, it’s an effort that can be rewarded with financial benefit, as well. Take solar energy as an example.

Patrick Helsingius, chairperson of the board of trustees at Sudbury United Methodist Church (SUMC) in Sudbury, MA, estimates that with the installation of a 46-kilowatt photovoltaic (PV) solar system on the church’s rooftop, SUMC stands to save about $110,000 in electricity costs over a 20-year period — made possible through a purchase power agreement (PPA).

A typical PPA, says Helsingius, is the best option from the perspective of cash flow and overall risk. Quite simply, SUMC agrees to buy electricity from a solar services provider at a discounted rate, under a long-term contract. “At the end of the term, the system can be removed by the installer, or we can acquire it at the then fair market value, which should be a relatively nominal amount,” says Helsingius.

And the best part? There’s no upfront capital required.

Likewise, to John Geffel, business manager of the 2,400-member Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin, OR, the no-cost financial arrangement is a “no-brainer.”

Under the 20-year facility lease agreement with NW Photon Energy (NWPE) — a provider, designer and installer of turnkey PV solar systems in the Pacific Northwest — Rolling Hills didn’t need to make any upfront investment for the installation and operation of its 100-kilowatt solar system, since NWPE owns the system and paid for all the costs.

But, that wasn’t the only financial benefit Rolling Hills got from the lease agreement.

“The approach that we took was to essentially rent our roof space to NWPE,” says Geffel. Doing so allowed Rolling Hills to derive a steady rental income stream — $300 per month for 20 years, for a total of $72,000. The agreement also gave the church the option to purchase the system at a depreciated cost in the future.

If Rolling Hills had decided to own the system outright instead of leasing its roof space to NWPE, it would have cost them roughly $30,000, says Kirk Cameron, NWPE president. Cameron’s company operates in three states (Oregon, California and New Mexico) that provide solar payment options that can be applied to nonprofits, he says.

Without these favorable programs, investing in solar energy is less attractive — and likely impossible or not worthwhile — for churches, according to Geffel.  Had the leasing option not been available to Rolling Hills, Geffel says the church wouldn’t have had a win-win opportunity and a means “to generate clean, renewable energy back into the grid.”

Grants can help offset the cost
For six Indiana congregations, a financial investment in energy conservation reflects a more intentional demonstration of their commitment to environmental stewardship. And, with a little help from the state grant, these churches are on their way to becoming, literally, sources of light and power in their communities.

One of the churches — St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bloomington, IN — shelled out $41,000 for the installation of its solar system, which was completed in April this year, says Dr. Lyle McKee, senior pastor. An additional $25,000 came from a grant through the Indiana Office of Energy Development, or OED.

All six Indiana churches submitted one application last fall through a nonprofit called Hoosier Interfaith Power and Light (H_IPL).

“They applied for the maximum award amount of $150,000, and they agreed to split the funds evenly at $25,000 per church,” says Megan Ottesen, Indiana OED program manager. And, because each church brought funds to the table, “we were able to use the state grant to leverage even more funds,” Ottesen adds. “These leveraged funds helped maximize the impact of state funds and truly demonstrated the congregations’ commitment to this project.”

As for his church, McKee says it expects the solar panels to pay for themselves in 10 to 12 years (not counting the grant money). “The panels will generate between two-thirds and three-quarters of the electricity we use on an annual basis, cutting our bills by a projected $4,000 per year,” he explains.

McKee notes that the move toward energy reduction is just one of many steps his church has taken in response to a long-term commitment to “caring for God’s good creation.” It started in the 1980s with the banning of Styrofoam use (members brought their own mugs for coffee hour) and recycling. From there, the effort grew to include “green” expansion projects, such as better insulation, well-sealed doorways and double-pane windows. In October 2012, the church replaced 15,800 watts of incandescent lighting with 838 watts of LED lighting — tripling illumination for 1/19th of electrical use, says McKee.

Now that the churches have been awarded the grant funds, they’re expected to submit invoices to the Indiana OED and reports on their energy and cost savings. Over the next year, they will conduct 20 workshops statewide about the benefits, economics and importance of reducing carbon footprints — potentially reaching hundreds of congregations and thousands of households, says McKee.

But, whether or not grants are available, McKee says the real driving force to environmental stewardship is the belief that “God calls us to care well for the world that God made and told us to tend.” It’s an issue of good stewardship, he maintains, “and about a legacy of faith and life for this and all coming generations.”


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