“YES!” to Solar Power

This article originally appeared in the New York Interfaith Power and Light e-newsletter and the Presbytery of Western New York e-newsletter:

Getting to “Yes” on Solar at North Presbyterian Church, Williamsville NY

For years, several of us had dreamed of an array of solar panels on the sanctuary roof of North Church that would make visible to all our commitment to eco-justice. Last fall the time arrived to take action. Over the years the congregation had already worked hard to conserve energy and save money by changing light bulbs, heating zones, and timers.  In October we gathered together an informal group of volunteers from various committees of the church (property, finance, adult education, and mission/community) and started talking solar.

A Unitarian friend with solar experience short-listed the three firms that he would most trust with the project. One at a time we asked for informal proposals from each of them. We learned something from each of the presentations. By the end of November we had zeroed in on a 25 kW system that would produce about 60 per cent of the current electric usage of the church. That size would maximize the NYSERDA incentive. We had decided that the array would best be placed on the flat roofs of the education wings. We had checked with our insurance agent.

As we talked, the news was full of reminders of the vulnerability created by the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.  Protests in Libya and throughout the Middle East. The threat of nuclear meltdown in Japan. Hydrofracking mishaps in Pennsylvania.  The need for creating sustainable energy sources took on even more urgency than when we were thinking only of dirty coal power plants and global climate change.  We reached out to other churches and organizations to share information, especially engaging the management of the Presbyterian Village, apartments for seniors located behind our building. They are now planning their own solar projects.

By January we were ready to make a decision about finance. Sadly, the day of big grants and incentives was long gone, but, happily, costs had come down.  We were going to need to come up with at least $70,000 unless we could figure out a way to take advantage of federal tax credits that are not available to churches.  Other IPL affiliates shared information about the possibility of forming a company whose individual shareholders could take those tax credits and sell power to the church, but that seemed cumbersome.

Just as we gritted our teeth to begin planning a capital campaign, Solar Liberty, the Williamsville company that we had been talking with, presented to the congregation the possibility of leasing the system for 15 years. Solar Liberty would take the tax incentives and carbon credits.  After paying them $100 a month, with net metering we would save an estimated $200 a month on electricity. They had no previous experience with a lease of this kind, nor did we, so it took a few months to work toward a mutually acceptable lease and have it approved by our Session and Presbytery—but once we pioneers struggled through it together, it became a possibility for other organizations as well.

Patricia K. Townsend

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