Jennifer Neville,  Special to The Catholic Virginian

With a passion for caring for God’s creation, Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton, has converted to solar energy — the first parish in the Diocese of Richmond to do so.

Although solar power is expected to save the parish 13 percent in energy costs, frugality was not the main impetus for the change. Rather, answering the Church’s call to care for the environment was the driving force, said Father John Grace, pastor.

“It’s a moral mandate to care for God’s creation,” Father Grace said. “If we have the opportunity and the means and ability to act on that, to do good, to care for God’s creation, we should do it.”

Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical “Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home” stressed that climate change is a global problem with grave environmental, social, economic and political implications. He decreed that everything in creation is interconnected and that humans must be stewards of it.

The parish’s use of solar energy is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of approximately 232 tons of carbon dioxide each year, said Page Gravely, executive vice president of client services for Catholic Energies, a clean energy project development service from the Catholic Climate Covenant of Washington, DC. The covenant is an educational group on climate change and the environment that creates programs and partnerships to encourage action.

Switching to solar energy can seem daunting and cost-prohibitive, but Catholic Energies can help. It provides project management from design to installation at no cost to Catholic entities such as churches, schools and hospitals wishing to install solar panels or other energy-efficient equipment. It also finds funding from investors so Catholic organizations have different options for paying without upfront capital such as through power purchase agreements and capital leases, Gravely said.

Catholic Energies secured full funding of Immaculate Conception’s solar project from the investment company Red Lion Renewables, which paid approximately $350,000 for the 142kW installation on the church roof. In return, the parish signed a 25-year contract to pay Red Lion monthly for the solar power produced from the rooftop system. The building has a sanctuary, community space, classrooms and administrative offices.

Powering a church entirely with solar energy is somewhat unusual, Gravely said, because many churches lack enough flat rooftop space to accommodate all of the panels it needs. For them, solar energy can power a percentage of its total electricity. Immaculate Conception had sufficient space for the 440 solar panels it needed. They are held in place by weights which can withstand 150 mph winds.

Some of the 440 solar panels that have been installed on the roof of Immaculate Conception Church, Hampton — the first parish in the Diocese of Richmond to convert to solar energy. (Photo/Father John Grace)

Mark Hoggard, one of the founders of the parish’s Care for Creation Team, called caring for the environment a “pro-life issue.”

“Climate change is something that is affecting all of us. It’s affecting future generations, and it is affecting people around the world, especially the poor,” Hoggard said. “It’s an issue that affects the quality of life for people and beyond that affects life itself. We have to do something. We can’t just sit back and ignore it. We’re basically killing off future generations.”

Solar energy is not the parish’s only means of caring for creation. Tina White, a member of the parish’s Care for Creation Team, cited several other examples: The parish uses reusable plates, cups, utensils and napkins at most events. It purchases and serves Fair Trade coffee. A garden of native plants grows the greenery and flowers that adorn the worship space. This year the Bible school will use a curriculum that concentrates on caring for the environment. And, in caring for others, the parish hosts a meal each Sunday targeted to those in financial need but welcoming to all.

“We’ve been a very progressive parish. We have always looked to the future. And this is just one more iteration of that,” said pastoral council member Mike Mannen. “I’m so proud of the step we’ve taken.”

He added that he hopes other parishes in the diocese will “get on board with this” and utilize solar power. He encourages them to contact Immaculate Conception for more information or assistance.

“We are more than happy to help folks if they want to take this journey in their own parishes because we’ve been through it. We understand it,” he said.

Gravely said that other parishes in the diocese are working with Catholic Energies to evaluate solar energy for their buildings.

Hoggard praised the parish’s utilization of solar energy and other green efforts as opportunities to evangelize.

White hopes the parish’s use of solar energy will be seen as a testament of faith.

“God has called us from Genesis on to take care of our environment,” she said. “This sends a strong message that we don’t just preach the Gospel; we live the Gospel.”