Truly the Light Is Sweet

Solar panels at St. Andrew's, Seattle

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When St. Andrew’s Church in Seattle set out to become more eco-friendly and cost-efficient a few years ago, the strongest improvement came from an unglamorous new furnace in the cellar. It was not from the new solar panels mounted on a new reflective white rubber roof.

Solar project leader J.B. Hoover says the church has no regrets about investing $40,000 in a 10-kilowatt system, although it will take at least 20 years for the system to pay for itself in electricity savings.

St. Andrew’s did it for reasons other than financial return. Solar is helping the church reduce its fossil fuel emissions by 25 percent. The panels also allow the church to send a visible architectural message about the church’s values.

With solar, “the decision really needs to be driven by a different value and not the financial value,” Hoover said. “You’re affirming for the congregation: this is who we are. It’s a statement.”

Support for solar is glowing in many corners of the Episcopal Church. In January, the Church Pension Fund invested $17 million in a fund that makes microfinance loans for off-grid solar ventures in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. In the Diocese of California, at least 15 congregations have installed solar systems in the past decade. In Little Rock, the congregations of St. Mark’s, St. Michael’s, and St. Margaret’s have all either launched or completed new solar projects within the past two years in hope of inspiring others to do likewise.

“To put solar panels on the roof of your church is an outward symbol of your love for God,” said Scharmel Roussel, director of Arkansas Interfaith Power & Light, a nonprofit agency that has given $2,000 toward each of the new solar projects on Little Rock’s churches. “They also are an incentive for other churches to consider doing the same thing. That fact that three Episcopal churches have done it, one right after the other, says there’s kind of a little friendly competition going on.”

While many dream of using solar power at church, those that actually complete solar projects need something other than money, or the desire to save money. They need creativity and a sense of mission to see them through the stormy days that appear along the way.

That has been the case at St. Columba’s Church in Washington, D.C. The congregation examined solar options as part of a 2016 campaign to make the parish more eco-friendly, but some worried that rooftop panels might detract from the building’s appearance. Others felt the church could not afford, or at least could not justify, the necessary capital outlay to buy and maintain a system.

“We encountered some people at first saying, Oh gosh, we can’t — solar is a luxury,” said Cynthia Laux Kreidler, chair of the environment committee at St. Columba’s. “It actually took a few years and a few approaches to the plan to come up with one that didn’t seem like a luxury now that would pay off in 10 years.”

The environment committee identified an unobjectionable location on a south-facing, perfectly pitched section of roof on a 40-year-old wing addition. So out of sight is the spot that parishioners planted a Look Up! sign in the ground to ensure the panels are noticed.

Financing proved feasible with a little creativity, too. The congregation teamed up with a cooperative, the Community Purchasing Alliance, which negotiated terms collectively for 16 area nonprofits to access solar without buying systems.

In the agreement, St. Columba’s buys electricity from the company that owns and maintains the panels on its roof. Result: St. Columba’s paid nothing for a system that it does not have to maintain. And the system delivers a 40-percent reduction in the church’s electricity costs.

Getting to solar can be multilayered, even for motivated congregations. Reducing dependence on fossil fuels should begin with other steps first, such as plugging drafty cracks, replacing windows, and adding insulation, Roussel said.

Many churches would achieve the best return on investment by replacing an entire HVAC system, but they often lack either the funds or the will to make such an investment, said the Rev. Canon Lang Lowery, canon for Christian enterprise in the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Atlanta.

“They go and buy a very inefficient energy source, one that’s environmentally not good stewardship, because it’s low-cost,” said Lowery, who brings experience as a real-estate developer. “This is what I see going on across the church.”

Congregations keen to have solar without deep up-front costs have often entered non-ownership agreements similar to St. Columba’s that let power suppliers place panels on a church’s roof. But Lowery finds solar contracts tend to be riddled with risks and potential problems. Among the most common problems: damage to a roof is probable, Lowery said, but churches generally have no indemnification for situations in which workers cause roof damage or suffer injuries. What’s more, it can be difficult or impossible for a church to terminate its agreement. And investors, not churches, reap nearly all the financial benefits from lease agreements.

“One of the top things that I do across the country now is deal with problems or opportunities related to putting these solar panels on church roofs,” Lowery said. “These solar companies come in and do a 50-year lease for the roof. The contract requirements are horrendously bad. … I suspect this is going to end up costing the church a significant amount.”

A marketplace dotted with potential pitfalls, however, is not preventing congregations from going solar. It is just requiring them to be resourceful and perform due diligence.

The place to start, advisers say, is by researching incentives. States, utilities, and grant-making organizations often have programs that can help defray the costs and make solar financially feasible. For instance, last year Boston Solar donated a solar system to St. Paul’s Church in Natick as part of an agreement with the town. The company agreed to donate one to a local nonprofit agency after signing up 100 Natick customers, and St. Paul’s was selected as the beneficiary.

In Lafayette, California, St. Anselm’s Church jumped at a $15,000 rebate offered through a state program in 2007. That reduced the cost of installing 42 panels from $50,000 to $35,000. It also eliminated the church’s electricity bills, which had been in the range of $3,500 per year. Ten years later in 2017, the church recouped its full investment and still enjoys no electricity bills.

Yet because 10 years is a fairly long payoff window, churches need other motivations, said Douglas Merrill, a layman who helped lead St. Anselm’s project. Congregants were especially motivated, he said, to realize the environmental benefit, which was equivalent to taking two cars off the road.

“It’s not so much about the money we’re saving,” Merrill said. “It is about the reduction of carbon dioxide because global warming is really happening. I’m just happy we’re able to do our part, even though it’s small.”

As an architectural feature on a prominent building in town, solar panels on a church can help the faith community develop an environmentally friendly image. Lowery says various types of green initiatives, not just solar, can help a church show its love for God’s creation and appeal to prospective new members.

“New people who come to a church look at a facility differently than baby boomers did,” Lowery said. “If you want to be sustainable, you’ve got to be doing these things as a way of inviting people of a different generation. It’s not optional, because if you’re seen as the same old church doing the same old things, it doesn’t help your brand.”

Hoover hopes newcomers want to visit St. Andrew’s after seeing solar panels and resonating with what they say about the community. So far, he said, records show the congregation has not seen a significant bump in membership or attendance.

Some green initiatives have already helped the bottom line at St. Andrew’s. The new furnace, which cost $34,000, paid for itself within three years by reducing heating costs by $12,000 per year. And although solar panels have thus far cost more than they have saved at St. Andrew’s, they are giving the church something valuable in parishioners’ eyes: a platform to talk up solar as a viable option everywhere.

“We don’t get as much sun as a lot of places and electricity is artificially cheap here,” Hoover said. “But that’s an even greater reason for us to do it. It shows that if we can do it here, then for all these parishes in California, Arizona, and Florida — it should be so easy for them because the cost of electricity is higher and they have all this solar power.”


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