Solar panels allow religious institutions to do well while doing good | Earthbeat
“It sounds too good to be true,” said Father Dr. Stephen Planning, president of Jesuit Gonzaga College High School in Washington, DC, when he heard how the school can reduce its carbon footprint, meet the global Jesuit order’s climate push, while creating revenue streams.
The answer was solar panels.
Laudato Si ‘, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment, has sparked much discussion in the Catholic Church on how to take up the Pope’s exhortation to respond to global warming. In response to the encyclical, the Jesuits established “caring for our common home” as one of their four universal apostolic preferences.
The encyclical “provided the underlying philosophical, moral and religious impetus” for the school’s decision to go solar, Planning said.
“Religious institutions, Catholic schools, especially Jesuit schools, have sought ways to respond to the Church’s desire to expand social justice theory to our planet and respond not just as individuals but as an institution,” explained Planning.
The topic of solar panels came up in April 2017 when a small tornado demolished part of the roof of St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church, the school’s chapel. “A lot of people have started reaching out to me,” said Planning. “Hey, can we put solar panels on the roof of the church during the repairs?”
This proved impossible as the church, built in 1859, is listed as a historic building in the city of Washington. As a result, without approval from the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board, the school couldn’t do anything that would alter the facade of the church.
But “there was a wave of support for doing something when no one knew what it was going to be like,” said Planning. “There was no opposition at all.”
While Planning as president supported the idea of solar panels, Stephen Neill, the school’s chief operating officer, was the one who had to turn the idea into a reality.
Neill had heard of other schools and religious institutions doing similar projects, and he had already received suggestions from companies to install the solar panels.
It was Neill’s turn to make sure the school got the best deal. How much would the system cost? How much would it save? What public incentives were there for a place like Gonzaga?
“There are many of these groups of investors, some good, some bad, all of which are aggressively targeting institutions,” Neill explains. Some even touted their “Catholic” references but offered inferior suggestions.
“We spent a lot of time doing our due diligence on our group of investors and their experience installing solar systems and selling these loans,” explains Neill. He wanted to make sure that “they could secure whatever they said they would do for us.” He not only talked to the companies, but also to the institutions for which they had installed solar systems.
What he discovered was that in the District of Columbia, public incentives for a builder to run solar, even for nonprofits, are very strong.
The District of Columbia has some of the most aggressive renewable energy destinations in the country. By 2032, almost all energy in DC must come from renewable sources located in the district itself. Energy suppliers who fail to achieve this goal can expect a heavy fine of currently USD 500 per MWH
You avoid these fines by purchasing SRECs (Solar Renewable Energy Credits) that are generated by others using solar panels. Since there is little open space that is not federally owned, the roofs of buildings became the main plaza for the panels. This encouraged investors to seek out building owners, including nonprofits, where the investors would install solar panels and then sell the SRECs to local energy companies like Pepco and Constellation.
Ultimately, Gonzaga found an investment company, SPH Solutions, willing to pay for a $ 800,000 solar system for free for the school. The company owns and maintains the 300-kilowatt system of 757 solar panels and pays Gonzaga an annual rent of $ 20,000 for its roofs.
More importantly, Gonzaga receives all of the energy produced, which covers 20% of the school’s electricity usage, saving the school $ 75,000 per year. If, for example, the system produces more energy than the school consumes during the holidays, the surplus is fed back into the grid and the electricity meter runs backwards. Fortunately, the system was turned on the week the school had to close due to COVID-19.
Investors earn money selling the Solar Renewable Energy Credits to local energy companies. After 10 years the system will be owned by Gonzaga, and if the energy credit system is still in place, the school can sell the SRECs itself and make even more money.
The installation of Solar Gaines took only three months from contract signing to completion, in full collaboration between the city and Pepco, the local utility company. For Gonzaga, cash flow has been positive from day one.
The deal was a no-brainer for the school board. “Wait, we can reduce our ecological footprint and cut our energy costs and make money on top of that?” They asked. “It’s too good to be true.”
Gonzaga also saw the solar system as an educational opportunity. “Our science department was able to add this to our curriculum to show the kids the technology,” says Planning. On a website, students can monitor how much energy the system is generating.
Gonzaga isn’t the only Catholic facility in the district that installs solar panels. Others include the Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, Washington Jesuit Academy, and Catholic Charities DC, which have installed the largest solar array in the district.
For religious institutions considering installing solar panels, Neill would tell them, “Don’t look red at first sight that this is too good to be true, as more and more states are trying to find creative ways to to promote these types of programs. So really investigate what is available at the state and local levels to support such programs. “
Not every congregation or school has a COO like Neill, so bishops would do well to enable these programs through a central office in the diocese’s tax office. In this way the Church can put Laudato Si ‘into practice and contribute to reducing global warming.
Solar panels are a great opportunity for religious institutions to do good and do good.