At Climate Witness Project, we work to help churches lead the way in creation care! One way churches have invested in clean energy is by adding solar to their buildings. Here’s how several of our partner congregations have done this:
Valley CRC in Binghamton, New York
In 2015, Valley CRC of Binghamton, N.Y., looked into installing solar panels on its roof, but due to expense, aesthetic, and structural concerns, they decided not to pursue the project at that time. However, several years later the option of community solar became available in the area, and it seemed like a natural fit for the church. They took the plunge and officially signed up with solar company Nexamp for community solar.
Valley CRC has seen many benefits in pursuing community solar, such as:
Renewable solar energy helps the church be a better environmental steward.
They’re supporting a project run by a local company.
They’re supporting New York State's Energy Plan (50% electricity will come from renewable energy resources).
They save 10% on their electric bill, with no capital expense required.
It encourages members of the congregation to follow suit in their own homes.
Beyond the community solar project, the church has taken additional energy stewardship steps, including installing roof insulation, an energy efficient boiler, and LED lighting. In the future, Valley CRC hopes to explore ENERGY STAR certification.
Campus Chapel, University of Michigan
In 2016, Campus Chapel turned on 44 rooftop solar panels and began producing their own electricity. This moment was the culmination of a year-long process of exploring options for producing renewable energy. They chose solar panels because the church has a south-facing rooftop with a steep slope, which are ideal conditions for soaking up the sun’s rays and producing solar energy. Then, once the church ran the calculations on how much energy they used in a given year, they discovered that 44 solar panels would produce 100% of their needed electricity.
As a CRC campus ministry at the University of Michigan, many of the students and faculty who attend have felt God’s call to address issues of social and ecological justice. Their passion and skills have influenced the conversation about what it means to live as faithful followers of Jesus.
One of the catalysts for Campus Chapel’s work to invest in clean energy was a student-led group called the Chapel Climate Change Initiative. It investigated how the church community’s fossil fuel use has direct consequences for others around the globe. They learned that climate change most strongly affects the poor and vulnerable as well as plants and wildlife who are left without the food, water, and conditions they need to live and thrive. This Initiative analyzed the building use and integrated energy stewardship, confession, and lament into our worship services.
For the church, the philosophy that undergirds this work is from the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love their neighbors. This means finding ways for creation — all people, plants, and animals — to flourish. Campus Chapel felt that becoming better stewards of the building’s energy usage was a direct opportunity to deepen their faithfulness to God’s twin commands.
Since installing solar panels, the church has had the opportunity to be a part of a community conversation with students about how energy use relates to stewardship, justice, and caring for the poor. They’ve seen this as part of discipleship, giving future church leaders an opportunity to think about what faith in action looks like.
Second, it has become a core aspect of Campus Chapel’s Christian witness. The solar panels are highly visible and generate positive responses. People are grateful for the public commitment to reduce the building’s carbon footprint, and this has given an entry point to share about why this is, for the church, a gospel-centered decision.
Lastly, the solar panels have brought the church’s electric bill down to almost zero. For a small church community, that’s a big benefit!
For other congregations who want to invest in clean energy, here are some takeaways from the Campus Chapel experience:
Make sure you understand the energy use in the building. This can be accomplished through doing a self-audit or having an organization like Interfaith Power and Light, or a contractor, do it.
Community involvement is essential. Take the results of the energy audit and put it in context with the larger narrative about global energy use and its consequences for the poor, the vulnerable, and plants and wildlife.
At every step of the way, talk with other churches who have completed projects. The Climate Witness Project has great resources and a larger church network to tap into.
Make sure solar panels are the best fit for your building. Meeting with 2-3 solar installation contractors should help you understand how well-suited your church is for solar panels. Another energy stewardship option might be better.
Figure out how you can fit the solar array into your church’s budget. This could be integrated into planned capital improvements or funded as a stand-alone project. Understanding your solar array’s payback period is essential.
Look for state or local projects that help to fund or finance solar installation. Resources to finance solar energy are growing, and there are opportunities if you can find them. Reaching out to your municipal and state government departments can be useful for learning about these programs.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Hastings, Michigan
Founded in 1863, Emmanuel Episcopal Church is a great example of how an old building can incorporate solar power arrays into architecture that’s not easily adaptable! Michigan’s Battle of the Buildings initiative did a story on the church’s journey to invest in solar:
“[They] started with an energy audit walk-through with Occupant Care to identify ways to reduce energy consumption, an important first step to installing solar. Occupant Care became a key project partner in Emmauel’s energy projects. . . roof assessments from both a structural engineer and a roofing specialist led to Solar Winds Power Systems installing a 20 kW solar array on the south-facing roof of the rectory.
Through combined energy efficiencies and on-site solar generation, Emamuneul’s net carbon emissions have dropped 60% (pre-pandemic projections calculated a 50% decrease).” Read more at the Battle of the Buildings blog.