Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Quick Question, Long Answer
distributed 9/28/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

On Tuesday, I posed "a very quick question" to the Eco-Justice Notes subscriber list. Actually, it was two questions. (1) Has your church installed solar panels? (2) Is your church giving active consideration to installing solar panels?

So far, I've heard back from over 70 people. Many thanks to those who have responded. I'm still eager to hear from others who have information to share.

Some folk were able to give a very quick answer to my quick question, "no." A few others answered with a simple "yes." Most gave longer answers. Those details have been very helpful to me in understanding what is going on in local churches.

Today, I'll share some first results and impressions from my very quick question. I'll provide a bit of context for why I asked, and I'll hint at some financial encouragement for those congregations who are considering a solar installation.

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Let's start with the NO group, which is about 1/3 of all the responses. There's some remarkable variety within this cluster.

Quite a few added an "unfortunately" to the short negative response.

Several said no to solar panels on the church property, but reported that the congregation is buying electricity from off-site solar arrays, which should count as a variety of "yes."

Some described congregations that had done careful investigation, and discovered technical problems that precluded an installation. A slate or tile roof that can't handle the mounting hardware, and property that isn't suitable for ground-based panels, were among the reasons given.

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The YES group made up almost half of the answers, and most of these people are really proud of what their church has done.

Where details were given, the size of the installation ranged from quite small (5 kilowatts) up to quite large (53.46 kW). Most of these have been put on the church roof, some on the ground, and one put the panels over the parking lot, where they also provide cars with shade from the hot desert sun.

I'd asked how the church paid for their solar panels, and the answers cover a huge range.

  • Some funded the cost by donations from the congregation. I heard about "a large bequest," "a single donor who had a desire to make this happen," and lots of committed fundraising from church members. One fundraising strategy involved "selling" panels to members of the church. Several talked about installations that came in stages, with new rounds of contributions making the second and third stages possible.
  • When a loan was needed to provide up-front cash, denominational sources sometimes were able to provide especially favorable interest rates.
  • Some received grants -- from denominational funds, their state's Interfaith Power and Light, from the state (Florida), or "as part of the federal stimulus package and there was essentially no cost to us."
  • There were financing arrangement where the church didn't have to foot the bill. "Investors bought the panels, took tax credits over 5 years, and then donated the panels to the church."
  • A couple of the people responding made special note of the savings in utility payments being used to cover the cost of solar panels. Those savings have been used to pay off the loans, with additional savings to the church continuing far beyond the term of the loan. If there wasn't a loan, then the utility savings can be a significant help to the church budget.

It wasn't an explicit part of the question that I asked, but a number of responses pointed to the environmental and social benefits of the panels that have been installed. The many megawatts of electricity generated mean reduced pollution from fossil fuels -- extracted, transported and burned -- which means healthier communities, and reduced climate impacts. It isn't only about saving money on the church utility bill. One congregation even talked theologically! "Ultimately, the installation of solar panels is about faith, hope, and love. "

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Which brings us to the churches that are considering a solar installation -- the smallest group of responses, so far.

These ranged from churches that are in the active planning stage, to some pretty laid-back "we're thinking about it" answers. "A lack of leadership" was named as a big reason why the idea hadn't moved ahead.

Several said that getting the roof replaced or reinforced had to come first. A few said that they needed more information about the technology, and the local quirks of zoning, especially for historic buildings.

And quite a few of the churches considering solar panels had concerns about money.

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The enthusiastic responses from churches that have installed solar panels -- or are purchasing renewable energy through other means -- make it clear that this can be a great thing for a congregation. It is lifted up as a very visible act of witness, as responsible stewardship, as climate action, and as a good investment. I didn't hear about regrets for taking this action.

The churches that have done this also show that the financial questions can be answered in a multitude of ways. Money may not be the big roadblock that churches assume when the idea first comes up.

It is clear to me, from reading these responses, and from talking to many people through the years, that there needs to be some dedicated leadership if solar panels are going to happen. It will take a lot of time to research the technical options, get proposals from contractors, work out the financing, and follow through with the construction work. No matter how good an idea it is, or how wonderful the south-facing expanse of the church roof, the panels will not appear without a committed group of church leaders doing the work to make it happen.

It is also clear to me that there is lots of help available to churches in deciding what to do. Interfaith Power and Light affiliates have state-level expertise. Our good friends at GreenFaith have great resources on renewable energy options. Your denomination may have funding and other resources. You don't need to do this all on your own!

I floated the question about solar panels with a special interest in the churches that are "considering." In recent weeks, Eco-Justice Ministries has heard from two different sources about funding options for solar installations. We may be able to connect churches with the sort of investment groups that can do an installation without up-front costs. And we've been asked to facilitate some matching grants to appropriate churches.

If your church is in the considering stage -- either actively or passively -- and money is one of the roadblocks, let me know about your situation. We may be able to help.

I'm encouraged and energized by what I've heard so far. Many churches have found solar panels to be a wise and faithful way to serve the congregation, the community, and all creation. It is a form of witness and stewardship.

Congratulations to the churches with panels installed. I pray that many more churches will follow in that path.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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