Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Solar projects at seven Catholic entities in the Diocese of Richmond are expected to offset more than 45,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases — about that of an average passenger car driven 100 million miles — over the next 25 years.
Such are the statistics from Catholic Energies, a service of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Catholic Climate Covenant which helps guide the U.S. Church’s response on climate change and care for creation.
The energy required to power U.S. buildings is responsible for about a third of the greenhouse gases in the country, according to a Catholic Energies press release. The recent passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act calls for the state to move toward 100% of renewable energy.
Solar energy gives Catholics the opportunity to be stewards of creation as Pope Francis instructs in his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home,” which 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.
Fiscal, environmental sense
Last summer, Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton, became the first Catholic church in the diocese to convert to solar energy. Now six parishes and schools, many inspired by ICC, are completing or nearly completing solar projects that will provide some extent of solar power: Church of the Holy Family, Virginia Beach; Church of St. Therese, Chesapeake; Our Lady of Lourdes School, Richmond; Roanoke Catholic School; Sacred Heart Church and School, Danville; and St. Pius X Church and School, Norfolk. The 45,000-square foot diocesan Pastoral Center in Richmond will also employ solar power for much of its electricity.
For these entities, solar power makes fiscal and environmental sense.
“It is the best of both worlds. We can save money and care for the environment,” said Fr. Jonathan Goertz, Sacred Heart pastor. “Whenever we can have our cake and eat it too makes us happy.”
Similarly, Mark Stinard, Holy Family facilities manager, said, “It’s a win/win situation.”
Kevin Hawke, Sacred Heart facilities maintenance and security coordinator, said the environment was the parish’s “number one concern.”
“It wasn’t just about money and how much money can we save but also our effect on the environment,” he said. “It was about what kind of world we are leaving for future generations.”
Even if adopting solar power wouldn’t have resulted in substantial savings, some parishes said they might have still converted, at least partially, to the clean energy.
“Our primary concern is the environment and taking better care of God’s creation. That’s the fundamental basis why we’re doing this,” said Father Kevin O’Brien, Church of St. Therese pastor. “Even if we didn’t raise a penny or we broke even, it was still worth it.”
Philip Kauneckas, a Sacred Heart parishioner collaborating with Catholic Energies on the project, agreed that the opportunity to be stewards of creation was the “driving force” of converting to solar power. “Even if we break even, the project still would have been worthwhile because it is good for the environment,” Kauneckas said.
Becoming ‘greenest’ diocese
Charles Mikell, director of the diocese’s Office of Real Estate, said his goal is for the diocese to be the “greenest” in the country. Employing solar energy is cost-effective for 70 percent of the diocese’s 146 parishes and 26 schools, he said, adding that he hopes all will have solar energy within three years.
Page Gravely, head of client services at Catholic Energies, said the Richmond Diocese appears to be “further along” that path than a majority of dioceses nationally.
Converting to solar power either partially or completely may seem daunting to some parishes and schools, but Catholic Energies can work with Catholic institutions without charge from the beginning to end; that is, from economic analysis to panel installation and activation, Gravely said.
For several of the institutions, the cost of retrofitting fluorescent and incandescent light with LED (light emitting diode) is bundled into their solar energy project. According to energystar.gov, LED lighting products produce light up to 90% more efficiently than the traditional lighting.
Gravely said Catholic institutions have three options on how to pay for a solar energy system — pay upfront, finance it or sign a power purchase agreement. In the latter, Catholic Energies secures an investment company to foot the bill, and in return, the investor receives tax credits and regular payments from the church or school for the solar-generated power.
The power purchase agreement is usually for 25 years, but the parish or school has a buy-out opportunity starting after five years which may reap additional savings over the long run.
All but Roanoke Catholic School opted for the power purchase agreement. American Electric Power, which serves Roanoke, does not allow third-party ownership or financing, so the school opted to take out a capital lease.
Modeling good stewardship
Gravely said the time from economic analysis to panel installation and activation is generally six months.
Parish and school conversion to solar power comes at a time when budgets are tight, partly due to lost jobs and the absence of an in-pew offertory collection due to live-streamed Masses. The utility savings will free money for other priorities, Gravely said.
The solar panels can withstand up to 150 miles-per-hour wind and the energy standard expectation is they will last 30-40 years.
Patrick Patterson, Roanoke Catholic School principal and Head of School, said converting to solar energy and the retrofitting of LED lights demonstrates the Church’s call to be both economic and environmental stewards. He said the school saved $150 in energy cost in the first three days, and he expects it will save about $30 per day depending on how sunny it is and how much energy has been banked.
He hopes the savings will result in the school’s ability to add additional staff/support/ faculty positions and/or expand its financial aid offerings to families. Students can better understand the impact of solar energy via a website that shows the amount of power generated and used.
Adopting solar energies is a witness to the community, parish leaders said.
“It shows youth, the next generation which cares about the environment, that churches and schools also care,” said Gravely.
Deacon Fred (Bubba) Allen at Church of St. Therese said parishioners and people from the greater Chesapeake community have called the parish to praise its commitment of caring for the environment. Some callers also expressed interest in making the switch to solar energy.
St. Pius X pastoral associate Mark Hoggard agrees that their employment of solar energy speaks to the greater community.
“We are hoping this is something that the parish is proud of and the school kids are proud of too,” Hoggard said. “It really says to the community that we are witnesses to the environment and good stewards of earth.”
Editor’s note: Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Sí: On Care for Our Common Home” can be read at http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
More than $2.5M in savings
The seven entities in the Diocese of Richmond that are among the latest to convert to solar energy could realize a combined net savings of more than $2.5 million over 25 years, according to figures calculated and provided by Catholic Energies. The breakdown for each:
Church of the Holy Family, Virginia Beach. LED lighting and solar energy are expected to offset about 87% of the electricity the parish historically consumes each year, reducing its carbon footprint by 7,100 metric tons of CO2 over 25 years. The cumulative net savings is projected to be about $525,000 over 25 years.
Church of St Therese, Chesapeake. Solar energy coupled with reduction in energy consumption from LED lighting is expected to offset about 82% of the electricity the parish historically consumes each year, reducing its carbon footprint by about 2,900 metric tons of CO2 over 25 years. The cumulative net savings is projected to be about $125,000 over the next 25 years.
Diocese of Richmond Pastoral Center. Solar energy and LED lighting are expected to offset 84% of total hours of the electricity it historically consumes each year, reducing its carbon footprint by about 11,000 metric tons of CO2 over 25 years. The cumulative net savings is projected to be about $660,000 over the next 25 years.
Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, Richmond. Solar energy and LED lighting is expected to offset 98% of the electricity the school historically consumes each year, reducing its carbon footprint by about 4,200 metric tons of CO2 over 25 years. The cumulative net savings is projected to be about $250,000.
Roanoke Catholic School. Solar power is expected to offset 16% of the electricity the school historically consumes per year, reducing its carbon footprint by 2,800 metric tons of CO2 over 25 years. The cumulative net savings is projected to be $250,000.
Sacred Heart Church and School, Danville. Solar energy and LED lighting are expected to offset 89% of the electricity they historically consume each year, reducing their carbon footprint by about 7,800 metric tons of CO2 over 25 years. The cumulative net savings is expected to be $450,000 over 25 years.
St. Pius X School Church and School, Norfolk. Solar power and LED are expected to offset 71% of the electricity they historically consume per year, reducing their carbon footprint by about 9,500 metric tons of CO2 over 25 years. The cumulative net savings is expected to be $300,000 over 25 years.
– Jennifer Neville