Solar for the Faithful
By Doug Boleyn, Solar Oregon Board Member
Why are more religious buildings in Oregon installing solar electric systems? Communities of faith face numerous hurdles to going solar – including the initial capital costs, the inability to take advantage of tax incentives, reliance on contributions, and internal decision making processes. However, for many spiritual communities, going solar provides a visible and real way to demonstrate their faith and commitment to earth stewardship in the face of human-caused climate change. Going solar is a growing response that not only saves on fossil fuels and money, but also makes a visible moral statement to the world.
The concept of caring for the earth is found in ancient and modern spiritual traditions. Native American religions cared for the earth to be mindful of the “seventh generation” that follows. The great world religions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam all carry important tenets to preserve and protect the earth and the land. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the direct commands for “care of the planet” start in Genesis where God created all things Good and where God calls on humankind to “till and keep” (read care for!) the earth. For many congregations, this understanding provides a moral basis for a much longer-term view than what a strictly financial model would offer.
Oregon Faith Communities Find Their Way to Solar
Organizations in Oregon, ranging from Ecumenical Ministries’ INEC (Interfaith Network for Earth Concerns), Oregon Interfaith Power and Light, EcoFaith Recovery, to a host of other faith organizations are all focused on preserving, protecting, recovering, and loving Creation for its own sake, not just because it’s “cost-effective” to do so.
Due to their tax-exempt status, the inability to utilize generous tax credits presents a large financial burden to using solar on religious buildings in Oregon. Federal (30%) and state (BETC) tax credits available to Oregon homes and businesses don’t apply directly. In addition, reliance on donations from members along with internal decision making processes can be obstacles. Key ingredients to going solar for faith communities are having considerable discussion leading to buy-in, followed up by financial support for any solar action.
Several financial methods have risen to the top of the list for faith communities in Oregon: 1) Members forming their own tax-liable business (LLC) to absorb all the tax credits and in which the faith community pays the member-owned business for energy generated; 2) Enlisting in the PGE or Pacificorp Feed-In tariff program, in which the tax status is not applicable; 3) Members literally buying (and owning) the system and having it installed on their faith community building as a donation and; 4) Combinations of the above.
The following are just a few stories exemplifying how faith communities in Oregon overcame obstacles to installing solar systems and demonstrate their long-term commitment to caring for the earth.
Peace Lutheran Church, Philomath, 2005
The first faith community in
Oregon to install a grid-tied solar PV system on their building was Peace
Lutheran church in Philomath in August, 2005. This system was installed due to
the generous gift of an anonymous donor, who offered to purchase the solar
energy system and have it installed as part of the church's plans to replace a
badly leaking, flat roof. A number of church members, including the anonymous
donor, were familiar with solar energy and so were very interested in the
conservation of the Earth's resources. The 2.7 kW
system was expected to provide up to a third of the church electricity use. About
$40,000 from a long-term building fund was combined with another $52,000 raised
by members over 12 months to create a debt-free project. The solar system is
owned by the key donor who captured Energy Trust and Tax credits. [Carol Reeves
of the Corvallis Gazette-Times.]
Hood River Valley Christian Church (2011)
The Hood River Valley Christian Church began considering solar in the mid-2000’s. After resolving issues regarding financing, roofing repairs and upgrades, plus other issues, this committed congregation followed through in October, 2011 with their completed 11 kilowatt PV system on their fellowship hall.
First United Methodist Church, Eugene (2011)
The 28.35 kW Photovoltaic Parking Canopy in the First Methodist Church of Eugene’s church parking lot was part of Solar Congregations initiative of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon and is unique in a variety of ways. The process involved a strategy where church and community members bought and installed the solar array, took advantage of tax and other individual incentives, then passed the ownership to the congregation while receiving a financial return. One of the missions of First Methodist is to deepen the connection between ecology, faith, and good stewardship. Pastors Debbie and John Pitney have been long-time vocal advocates and champions for “earth-keeping” as a church mission. Taking these values to heart, the church installed a state of the art solar array over the church’s parking lot. This installation utilizes a building integrated structure with a racking product line developed and manufactured here in Oregon, called Rainframe. Energy Design of Eugene managed the project in cooperation with Solarc, 2G, and West Side Iron Inc. The 28.35 kW array utilizes Schüco modules and SMA inverters.
Rolling Hills Community Church, Tualatin (2012)
The largest single church-installed system in Oregon is a 100 kW roof-mounted system that NW Photon Energy (NWPE) installed for Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin, Oregon. The solar installation was made possible by use of a Facility Lease Agreement between the church and NW Photon Energy (NWPE), and being a “winner” of a PGE Feed-In Tariff slot. The church, which provided no up-front capital, leases their roof space to NWPE for 20 years at $300 per month, for a total of $72,000 income over the 20 year period. The system generates income from PGE for 15 years. NWPE is responsible for the installation and operation of the solar system, leaving the church free of this responsibility. At the end of the 15-year lease term, the church can either buy the system at a very attractive depreciated price or they can continue to buy power at half price of market rates. This means the church can continue to reap huge energy savings for the remaining 20+ years of the solar PV system. The 100-kW system uses Schuco modules.
Guy Anderson, a congregation member as well as a project manager for NW Photon Energy, proposed the system to church leadership. Anderson said, "The church is setting a great example for non-profit institutions of all sizes to follow. I believe energy stewardship is our responsibility as a congregation and community member. This is a great way for us to show our commitment to bettering the earth while encouraging our local community to share in this commitment.”
The solar system is owned by 3CSolar of Portland, Oregon, a solar financing company dedicated to commercial solar energy systems. NW Photon Energy and 3CSolar provide the financing, design, installation, monitoring, and maintenance of the project. The firm of Solar Oregon’s Board Member David Peterson, Tonkon Torp, performed all the legal setup of the business structure used by Rolling Hills, 3CSolar and NWPE.
First Congregational Church, Salem (2012)
One of the first congregation-funded solar projects to tap Oregon’s Solar Payments Pilot Program was installed in spring, 2012. The 10 kw system uses Oregon-manufactured Solar World panels and is installed on the steeply pitched, south-facing roof of First Congregational Church in Salem.
The solar panels were installed in October 2011 with assistance from Oregon Interfaith Power & Light (OIPL), a program of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and its Solar Congregations Equity Investors, Inc.(SCEI).
Other technical assistance was provided by Steve McGrath of Sustainable Solutions and the energy division of Lane Powell Attorneys. The project’s up-front costs were funded 100 percent by short and longterm loans from congregation members and friends. Short-term loans were paid back by a Federal Treasury Grant for renewable energy through project owner SCEI. Because Congress failed to renew the program at the end of 2011, future projects cannot tap this funding source.
The long-term loans are being repaid through the electricity generated by the panels and solar payments. Twenty-one church members contributed from $500 to $8,000 in personal loan funds. OIPL director, Jenny Holmes, says, “The members of this congregation were incredibly dedicated to the idea of supporting locally-produced renewable energy and caring for God’s creation.” The congregation, OIPL and contractors overcame numerous obstacles in coming up with a funding plan that worked, while dealing with a complex roof situation. There were narrow windows of time within which the church had to act to tap financial resources. “This congregation really pulled together in a fairly short period of time to make the project happen,” Holmes said.
However, as Holmes says, “First Congregational and our other projects show in spades that if there is a will and a prayer, there is a way—but with better policies and programs, it could be so much easier.”
St Vincent Catholic Parish, Salem (2012)
St. Vincent de Paul Parish of northeast Salem installed solar panels to its roof in November, 2012. Officials at the church had been discussing using solar panels for years and finally took the plunge late 2012. The church's annual PGE energy bill is estimated to be reduced by approximately 25 percent, or $2,500 per year by the system expected to produce 28,595 kilowatt hours per year.
In the case of St Vincent Parish, a couple, Steven and Marilyn Lippincott, donated a solar electric system and also paid for its installation by REC Solar Inc. and Sunsource Oregon LLC. The St. Vincent de Paul church also has added other green measures with the church's regular monthly donors also helping the church buy “green power” from PGE on a monthly basis. For more information, see Solar Oregon’s article in the link below:
McMinnville Cooperative Ministries (2013)
When Trinity’s Rev. Mark Pederson and McMinnville United’s Courtney McHill presented a comprehensive plan for reducing MCM’s carbon footprint, at a cost of almost $200,000, they were anticipating congregational hesitancy. But the congregations embraced the idea of restoring the facility. MCM contracted the work to Cellar Ridge Energy Works of McMinnville. The goal was an 80 percent reduction in the facility’s carbon footprint which will be for the most part, unseen. “I think it’s great to have churches care about the environment,” Pederson said. “A part of a faithful life is really taking care of God’s creation.” The entire $200,000 project included many improvements to the 1940’s constructed building: replacing windows, replacing or refurbishing wooden doors, adding insulation, upgrading the heating system, and sealing air leaks in addition to installing the 9.2 kW solar photovoltaic system capable of supplying almost over 10,000 kilowatthours annually. [Molly Walker, McMinnville News Register, Jan 18, 2013]
[Photo courtesy Cellar Ridge Construction]
EnergyWise’s Church and Non-Profits Program
The EnergyWise program has been an important one in getting solar systems on church buildings throughout the state with a win-win financial strategy. Peter Greenberg, a long time solar advocate and businessman in Oregon, currently the President of Energy Wise of Eugene, OR, created a financial model wherein participating religious institutions would get financial benefits beginning in the first year, at no up-front cost to them. For example, a 10 kW system would be owned by Energy Wise and installed on the church building. EnergyWise would take the Feed-in Tariff payments from the utilities (at 20-40 cents per kWh), as well as Federal Tax Credits and depreciation allowances to pay for the system. The church would receive $1000 in benefits per year from the system (in the form of lower utility payments and/or cash).
Mr. Greenberg targeted non-profit and government institutions, such as churches and schools, knowing that these institutions own and operate their buildings for at least 15 years, the term of the Feed-In Tariff contracts. He reached out with the offer to upwards of 600 churches throughout the PGE and Pacificorp service areas. Thirteen were able to respond to the offer with appropriate buildings, solar access, and approvals from their church decision-making bodies and be selected for utility Feed-In Tariff projects.
The result was 12 churches with 10 kW systems each, and one church with a 30 kW system. Another 190 kW was installed on church-affiliated George Fox College in Newberg on 6 buildings. With another 260 kW church-related project underway (news about this in the next few months), the total of Greenberg’s projects is 645 kW. These projects include Bethel Congregational UCC in Beaverton, Savage Memorial Presbyterian Church and Ascension Catholic Church in Portland, East Hill Church in Gresham, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Salem, Keizer Christian Church, Church of God – Seventh Day in Jefferson, First Baptist Church of Medford, and Tigard Christian Church.
Jason Cox of the Keizertimes, reported on the Keizer Christian Church as one of the participants in the EnergyWise program. The church allowed the panels to be installed at no up-front cost to the church, the church rents out the roof to EnergyWise, then splits the energy savings with the Portland General Electric solar program, with the church earning an energy credit of about $100 per month.
Cox’s article goes on to capture Pastor Bob Arnold’s comments, “We’re participating in clean energy, lowering utility bills and maybe we get some money to help us with repairs around the church. It all seemed like a win-win.” The church takes steps like recycling for fundraising to conserve natural resources, and said the move to install panels was a natural step in that direction “Taking care of the good earth that the good Lord has given us is a fundamental part of our calling as Christians,” Arnold added.
Future Solar Opportunities for Oregon Faith Communities
There is a great deal of creativity throughout the country in making such “moral decisions” for faith communities pencil out financially. The projects featured here are examples of the perseverance and creativity needed to make the “right” decision a good decision. But the future is somewhat brighter for faith communities getting solar.
The substantially lower costs of solar now in 2013 versus the past are helping make the “penciling” a bit easier. Systems cost less than half of what they did a short 3-4 years ago. These lower costs are beginning to eliminate the need for tax incentives, which benefits all non-taxable organizations. The power of the internet is also seen as a method to such fundraising: crowdfunding has begun in some churches in California.
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (representing all faiths) and its Oregon Interfaith Power & Light (OIPL) program plans to use all that it has learned from past projects to continue efforts to assist other congregations and ensure that policies and programs are more accessible to non-profits and congregations in the future.
For more information about EMO’s Oregon Interfaith Power & Light and its Solar Congregations Program, call (503) 221-1054, ext. 214, or go to www.emoregon.org/power_light.php.
For Further Reference: