Climate Witness Project: Campus Chapel Solar Project

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Can you provide an overall picture of the Campus Chapel's energy stewardship/solar efforts?

On September 27, 2016, our worshipping community turned on 44 rooftop solar panels and began producing our own electricity for the Campus Chapel. This moment was the culmination of a year-long process of exploring options for producing renewable energy for our building. We selected solar panels because our 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. We calculated how much electricity we use in a given year and found that 44 solar panels would produce 100% of our electricity. We never could have done this, though, without the help and support of partners, including other churches, who have walked this road before us and who offered us invaluable counsel.

While the solar panels were a dramatic shift in our energy stewardship, we have tried to be faithful energy stewards for at least a decade now. We have installed motion-activated lights with efficient bulbs, programmable thermostats set at low temperatures in the winter, and a garden to donate fresh produce to local food pantries.

Why is the Campus Chapel passionate about energy stewardship/how did the efforts begin?

As a CRC campus ministry at the University of Michigan, we attract a lot of students and faculty who have felt God’s call to address issues of social and ecological justice. Their passion and skills have permeated our community and its conversations about what it means to live as faithful followers of Jesus.

A decade ago, a group of students started the Chapel Climate Change Initiative. It investigated how our church community’s fossil fuel use has direct consequences for others around the globe. We 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. The Initiative analyzed our building use; educated our community; and integrated energy stewardship, confession, and lament into our worship services. Two years ago, we started a capital campaign for our 75th Anniversary and put the previous research and discussion into action by shifting to renewable energy.

The Initiative analyzed our building use; educated our community; and integrated energy stewardship, confession, and lament into our worship services.

What connection do you see between creation/energy stewardship and faith?

Our two greatest commandments are to love God and our neighbor. One way we do this is by finding ways for creation - all people, plants, and animals - to flourish. God calls us to serve and protect creation (Genesis 2:15) and to care for the poor and vulnerable among us (Leviticus 19).

Consuming fossil fuels for energy has transferred carbon sequestered deep in the earth into our atmosphere. It is altering our climate which creates stronger hurricanes, floods, droughts, and forest fires; disrupts the food we grow; affects our business supply chains; and so much more. When we burn fossil fuels, we make the lives of plants, wildlife, and vulnerable people around the world increasingly more difficult and potentially deadly. Becoming better stewards of our energy usage is a direct opportunity to deepen our faithfulness to God’s twin commands.

To be faithful, loving neighbors, we need to significantly lower our energy use.

To be faithful, loving neighbors, we need to significantly lower our energy use.

What benefits has the Campus Chapel experienced since starting these projects?

First, this project has generated a community conversation with our students and young people about how our energy use relates to stewardship, justice, and caring for the poor. We have given these future church leaders an opportunity to think about what faith in action looks like.

Second, it has become a core aspect of our Christian witness. Our panels are highly visible and generate positive responses. People are grateful for our public commitment to reducing our carbon footprint, and it gives us an entry point to share about why this is, for us, a gospel-centered decision.

Lastly, the solar panels have brought our electric bill down to almost zero. For a small church community, that’s a big benefit!

The solar panels have brought our electric bill down to almost zero. For a small church community, that’s a big benefit!

What challenges has the Campus Chapel experienced in these projects? How did you overcome them?

It’s important to get these projects right, which requires time and research. We wanted to find the best energy-reducing option for our community and building. Church building usage is uneven, so we looked at our usage patterns. We investigated insulation, ceiling fans, geothermal energy, radiant heat, boilers, as well as solar panels. It took a strong community commitment and involvement to make this happen.

Our biggest challenge has been the up-front cost. Two years ago, we decided that we wanted to make solar panels the center-piece in our 75th Anniversary campaign. It was extremely moving to see the way our community of alumni, stretching back over six decades, responded to the call. They wanted to sustain the Chapel in a tangible and faithful way well into our future. A great aspect of their gift is that the Chapel will recoup what they donated over the next 15 years since our electricity costs are near $0.

How can other churches begin projects like those the Campus Chapel has accomplished/started (solar panels, etc.)?

The best way to start is to understand the energy use in your building. Do an audit yourself with volunteers, or have an organization like your state’s Interfaith Power and Light or a contractor do it for you.

Community involvement is essential. Build what you learn from your energy audit into the larger narrative about global energy use and its consequences for the poor, the vulnerable, and plants and wildlife. Given your energy use, what is your community’s responsibility? How should you respond faithfully - in worship, in your personal and collective lives?

Community involvement is essential.

Research what energy options fit your building and community. Contractors will give free assessments and bids. You can learn a lot about your options this way.

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.

What advice do you have for churches looking to install solar panels?

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 is 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.

Other churches who have installed solar panels are very helpful guides. Reach out to them (including us!).

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