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Going Solar: A Congregational Guide to Photovoltaic Solar Energy
The Current Situation
Environmental and Financial Concerns
Houses of worship get their energy from the same sources that homes and businesses do. Almost 40 percent of Texas’ electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants.1 These plants emit large amounts of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and other organic compounds that increase smog and ozone levels, cause thousands of cases of respiratory illnesses every year, and destabilize the climate.
Asthma levels are on the rise, most Texas cities now have ozone-action days in the summer, and pregnant women are told to avoid eating locally caught fish. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is real and that it is largely caused by human activity. Without intending to, we have damaged God’s good creation and threatened our own health and future in the process.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are 370,000 houses of worship that collectively spend $3 billion annually on energy costs.2 Energy prices are currently rising at an 11 percent annual rate. In Texas, according to the Energy Information Agency, the cost of energy has risen from just over 6 cents to almost 10.5 cents per kilowatt hour in just the last 10 years.3 Shocks to the market or changes in the cost or availability of natural gas and other fossil fuels can create dramatic swings in energy costs that pose a threat to sometimes delicately-balanced congregational budgets.
While solar electric installation will provide a buffer of security for congregations concerned about fluctuations in electricity prices, the decision to “go solar” at a house of worship will be about something more than the merits of the financial equation. The upfront cost of solar is significant, and the money saved by installing solar generation takes a number of years to pay back. But the shared values of the community and the opportunity to help build a sustainable future make solar an investment with benefits above and beyond monetary considerations.
Electric Power Annual 2007. State Data Tables 1990-2007.
Why Pursue Solar?
An Investment in the Future
Out of concern for both the environment and the rising cost of power, many congregations are taking another look at the way they use energy. From improving energy efficiency to integrating renewable energy, houses of worship can play an important leadership role in defining and representing shared values. Solar electric power is one of the most common and rapidly expanding renewable power sources on houses of worship throughout the United States, including here in Texas. Installing solar or other distributed forms of energy generationon houses of worship makes a bold statement to the community and a significant impact on the environment.
In 2008, shipments of photovoltaic (PV) modules in the United States topped 986,500 modules per year – nearly ten times the number of units received just five years earlier.4 That rising trend continues today. The falling cost of solar electricity, increased concern about energy independence, air quality and climate change, as well as increased support from state governments for PV installations have helped spur this growth.
By installing on-site solar generation, congregations reduce air pollution, grow the local green energy economy, and protect the creation. At the same time, they demonstrate their values put into action.
Texas has long been a leader in emerging wind power. Creating demand in our own community for distributed forms of energy such as solar and wind will help spur innovation, investment and new jobs in local areas, and will keep our state ahead in other emerging clean energy industries. When we all do our part, we can ensure that Texas remains a global energy leader.
Gandhi urged us to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” This guidebook is meant to offer practical advice for the many Texas congregations considering solar installations.
Beyond “Blue and Shiny”
Understanding Photovoltaic Systems
Types of Solar Power
There are several different ways to harness the power of the sun. Knowing some terms and their definitions will help you and your congregation make an informed decision about solar power.
- Passive Solar - Uses design and building elements to optimize available sunlight for heat and natural light within a structure.
- Solar Thermal - Uses the sun’s energy to heat hot water. Much like a garden hose left in the sun will yield hot water, this plumbing application is simple and increasingly popular for homes and smaller buildings. Large-scale and commercial applications are just beginning to emerge.
- Industrial or utility-scale solar projects - Generally situated in rural areas, these installations serve as renewable power plants. This renewable energy may be available from electric utilities, but industrial-scale solar is still very rare in Texas.
Although there are many ways to harvest energy from the sun, this guide focuses specifically on rooftop and ground-mounted PV modules, which provide electricity directly to your house of worship
What are PV modules?
Photovoltaic modules convert solar energy into electrical energy. Each solar cell is comprised of two different layers of silicon products: the first layer typically contains phosphorus-infused silicon and the second layer contains boron-infused silicon. The difference between the two materials is essential for converting solar energy into electricity. Each module is composed of multiple solar cells that are electrically linked together behind a glass plate. Solar modules or panels grouped together in a PV system are called an “array.”
The essential ingredients of solar cells—silicon, boron, and phosphorus—are all derived from natural sources. For instance, the silicon is derived from sand. The sand is heated to form a liquid, which when cooled, becomes metallurgical-grade silicon—the product used in solar cells. Boron is produced in California, and the United States is the world’s leading producer of phosphate rock, which is used to manufacture phosphorous for industrial and agricultural uses.
How does the process work?
Sunlight is made of energy particles known as photons. When sunlight strikes the silicon layers of the PV cell, the energy in the photons is transferred to electrons. These electrons are then “freed” from their normal position in the atoms. The phosphorus-silicon layer is “electron rich” and the boron-silicon layer is “electron poor;” the difference in the materials produces an electric current moving in the direction of the phosphorus-silicon. A combination of the differently charged layers (the voltage) and the current generates electrical energy that can be harvested for different electrical needs.
Each solar cell within a PV module undergoes the “photovoltaic effect,” which transforms light into electrical energy. The cells work in concert to produce energy, so if some of the cells become shaded, the performance of the rest of the module will be affected. Only that light which is absorbed by the cells – not the reflected light – produces electricity. Therefore, the placement of the modules is important because it determines how much light the cells are able to absorb. Ideally, the cells should face south to maximize the amount of light captured throughout the year.
How safe are the modules?
Choosing an experienced, quality solar electric design integrator will ensure that your solar array is securely installed, won’t damage the structural integrity of the building, and is safely electrified. The cells pose no environmental health threat to members of your community. Increasingly, solar modules and the associated components have become the object of theft. Like any large capital investment, steps should be taken to protect a solar array once installed. In response, solar contractors are installing more system with anti-theft bolts and other security provisions.
How long does a system last and what happens with the modules afterwards?
A well-installed and well-maintained PV system will last approximately 25-30 years. In fact, most module manufacturers warranty the power production of their panels for a minimum of 25 years. There is currently no recycling system in place for PV modules, in part because demand for it has been so small to this point.
The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy reports that the solar industry is already preparing for the rising amounts of PV waste expected around the year 2020.5 It is highly likely that good re-use or recycling systems will be in place by the time today’s modules reach the end of their working life.
Will we still be connected to the electric grid?
Solar electric systems produce power for the building only when the sun is shining. Most systems being installed today are grid-tied, meaning that they are connected to the greater community’s electric grid. Grid-tied arrays typically only produce a portion of the electricity needed to power the building. Any excess energy produced is routed back to the grid. Houses of worship with grid-tied solar will need to be connected to the power grid and therefore will still need to have a utility electric provider. Unless the congregation has a solar battery backup system or an uninterrupted power system like a generator in place, it will still experience a loss of power during brownouts or blackouts.
Battery systems are very expensive, and greatly increase the cost of solar. Additionally, they must be actively maintained to work properly. For most, the electrical grid provides adequate backup and insurance. For a house of worship, there is an additional benefit to being connected to the grid: at times when the solar electric system produces more electricity than the congregation uses, excess energy flows back into the grid, allowing others in the community to use the green power produced by the array. Depending on the size of the installation and the congregation’s energy use, some houses of worship can actually become net producers of energy. In this way, congregations can look at their investment as another way they are involved in the community.
What is “net metering?”
Many utilities are able to offer some form of “net metering” or “net billing” for customers. With this system, the building’s electric meter tracks the energy flowing both ways: into your house of worship and back out to the electric grid. Utilities will charge for the electricity the congregation pulls from the grid when it consumes more than the solar array produces—for example, at night and on cloudy days. The electric meter will also register excess energy produced. Many utilities will pay a set rate per kilowatt-hour for this energy. As utility “peak hours” are in the mid- to late afternoon, solar power is typically available when electricity is most expensive, and when the utility needs the additional clean power most.
Should we wait for newer technology?
PV technology does not change as rapidly as computer technology, so a system installed this month will not be obsolete two months from now. In fact, solar technology has not changed much since the 1970’s. Most innovations have been geared at increasing inverter efficiency and lowering the cost of cell manufacturing. While there are emerging changes in utility-scale solar, and the promise of thin-film options seems to always be right around the corner, traditional grid-tied solar installed now will be a solid investment for decades to come.
We have an older building. What improvements will we need to make to install solar?
One day, all buildings will be designed and built with renewable energy generation in mind. However, the overwhelming balance of solar installations today are building retrofits. A qualified solar installer will be able to tell you which of your building’s roof surfaces receives the best sunlight. Because the solar electric system will be in place for more than 25 years, it is recommended that the chosen roof area be free of defects and have a life expectancy of more than five years. Additionally, most municipalities require that the building’s electrical system be up to standards described within the current National Electric Code. Choose a reputable installer with a licensed electrical contractor on staff to help assess the implications of introducing a solar electric system.
What are the maintenance requirements?
Quality solar arrays have no moving parts and are designed to be virtually maintenance-free. Furthermore, most arrays do not require regular cleaning because the panels are installed at a tilt. Most dust, dirt, and pollen will wash off in the rain. Some owners do prefer to occasionally clean their array; if you choose to do so, do not use soap or other chemicals and check with your solar installer about any particularities of your system.
Consider assigning someone at your congregation to check the array from time to time and visually inspect the module. Also, it is important to check the installation after major weather events to remove any branches or debris that might have fallen on it. The modules are highly resilient to weather damage, but even partial coverage will diminish the efficiency of the system. Investing in a data monitoring system allows both the owner and the installer to remotely monitor the performance of the array and notify you if the system is underperforming for any reason.
Before You Install
Pursue Energy Efficiency First
If your congregation is interested in reducing its heating and electricity costs as well as taking direct action to be more environmentally-friendly, then energy-efficiency is the place to start. The EPA estimates that if all houses of worship were to implement comprehensive weatherization plans, they would reduce their energy consumption by up to 30 percent.6 With efficiency, a little bit here and a little there really adds up.
Installing renewable energy in a house of worship is a savvy investment, but before this expensive option is employed, your congregation should first look at the efficiency of the building’s energy systems. If your building wastes energy, your community should prioritize efficiency improvements—these are usually simple, low-cost measures that will lower your carbon footprint and save money. Efficiency upgrades can be made before or during your transition to solar. By optimizing the energy your building uses, your solar electric system can be sized accurately, maximizing the environmental benefits.
There are a number of resources to help congregations pursue energy efficiency. If your congregation is ready to get serious about efficiency, Texas Interfaith Power & Light (TXIPL) has information and resources that can help. More sources of information about efficiency are listed in the “Online Resources” section below.
ENERGY STAR for Congregations
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency introduced ENERGY STAR for Congregations in 2009. This program is a transformational step in improving collaboration between the EPA and houses of worship to help congregations save up to 30 percent on their energy bills. The website offers specific technical advice for congregations and a “how-to” guide for increasing efficiency, as well as an online system for congregations to measure their energy use and track efficiency savings. The program also offers certification and ENERGY STAR award programs; lists qualified engineers, architects, and other efficiency professionals in your area; offers advice for new construction projects; assesses different energy-efficient appliances; and connects congregations with others working to improve efficiency.
The Energy Audit
If your congregation has not already done so, it is time to get an energy audit. Depending on the amount of time and resources you have available, you can either conduct an in-house audit or obtain a professional one. A professional energy engineer will be able to provide the most comprehensive review of your congregation’s energy use and advise you on what actions will have the greatest impact at the least expense. Congregations in North Texas are in luck, as the North Texas Association of Energy Engineers offers a free comprehensive audit to three houses of worship every year.
However, if you would prefer to do an in-house audit, Interfaith Power and Light has a “Cool Congregations” program that asks simple, straightforward questions about energy use and offers a list of actions your congregation can take today to save energy. Also keep in mind the “how-to” advice on increasing efficiency from ENERGY STAR for Congregations; the online tracking system will allow your congregation to watch its savings add up.
How do you know if you’re getting a good energy audit?
A good energy audit will examine how your congregation uses power, as well as the building structure itself. In addition to electricity use, it is helpful to assess water, natural gas, and other resource use. The audit should examine at least 12 months of bills to see how resource consumption changes throughout the year. Furthermore, the audit will identify where and when those resources are being consumed by taking into account the hours that A/C units, computers, copiers, ice machines, printers, and all other devices are in use. Your energy bill will include the meter number, so you can tell how much power is flowing through each of the separate meters.
Trent Cogdill, Vice-President of Priority Power Management, focuses on four areas that make the biggest difference in the energy use for houses of worship. They are, in order:
- Operational Changes
The way your congregation and visitors use the building has by far the largest impact on utility costs and the size of your carbon footprint. Changes may include using the air conditioning in a single room instead of the whole sanctuary, holding all Tuesday night meetings on a single floor or wing of the building, and remembering to turn off equipment when it is not in use. Another tip to consider is turning off the building’s hot water heater unless it is critical to have hot water in the kitchen or nursery. These operational changes may not be flashy, and it can be difficult to convince people to change their habits, but they are nearly all free to implement and will save the congregation money.
Lighting is usually the second-largest line item for houses of worship to become more efficient due to the presence of old lighting fixtures. These fixtures are often out of production and it will soon be impossible to replace the bulbs, so now is a good time to replace the fixtures. The “buyback” will be about twice as long as what lighting professional suggest because houses of worship use less power overall, but replacing old fixtures can cut your light-related energy use in half. You don’t have to replace all lights at once, but rather can go fixture by fixture in line with your budget.
- “The Envelope”
“The Envelope” is the engineer’s term for what many of us usually think of when we hear the word “weatherization.” Sealing the envelope involves addressing issues with the doors, windows, insulation, and padding. Solutions can be simple and inexpensive, such as caulking cracks, or more complicated, depending on what resources your congregation is able to dedicate to keeping your building cool in summer or warm in winter. A congregational work day, using volunteers of all ages, can be one way to seal your building’s envelope in a fun and community-building way.
- Major Appliances
The final step among the “big four” is to replace old and inefficient major appliances. Cogdill counts ductwork in this category, along with air conditioning and heating units. The payoff is substantial, but changes in this category are expensive and the buyback will be longer than for many residential or commercial buildings because appliances are used less frequently in a house of worship. If you are ready to start replacing major appliances, be sure to check out the ENERGY STAR web site.
Paying for Solar
Public and Utility Incentives and Financing Options
Photovoltaic solar installation is a major investment decision for your congregation since it can have a buyback of up to 20 years. However, there are a number of different incentives from the government and utilities that can make paying for solar easier for your congregation. This section focuses on three parts of paying for solar:
I. Public and Utility Assistance Possibilities
II. Congregational Resources
III. Other Financing Options
TXIPL staff can talk with you about different options that are available in your area. If you are working with a solar installation company, they should also be familiar with local financial assistance options that might be available from your municipality or utility.
I. Paying for Solar: Public and Utility Assistance Possibilities
Federal, state and municipal governments, as well as many local utilities, have introduced a number of incentives to make solar installation more affordable. Traditionally, the federal government has promoted small-scale solar installation with tax credits. The Solar Tax Credit makes the installation of solar electric systems affordable to residential and business consumers by allowing these consumers to deduct 30 percent of the cost of their solar electric systems from their federal income taxes.7 However, the credit does not improve affordability for houses of worship and other tax-exempt institutions because those entities do not pay federal income taxes.
There are several different models of how the government can make solar more affordable for houses of worship. To learn about the state, municipal and utility-based programs in your area, see the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE).
- Utility Rebate Programs
A number of electric utilities provide PV rebates. As the federal tax credit is not available for congregations and other non-profits, utility rebates are often their best source of economic assistance. These rebates are often priced per-watt of installed solar power capacity, although they may be “performance-based” incentives that track the amount of electricity produced as opposed to the amount of capacity installed. The amount of economic assistance available—in terms of per-watt rate and maximum allowable contribution—varies widely depending on the utility.
- Net Metering
“Net Metering” is how utilities reimburse renewable energy owners for the excess generation that flows from the owner of the generation into the electrical grid. Also called two-way metering, the utility tracks how much electricity flows both directions through the meter and credits the customer a set rate for the energy that flows to the grid; this helps offset the cost of the electricity that the renewable generation owner purchases from the utility. The payoff can be especially significant for houses of worship and other institutions with “counter-cyclical demand cycles” – they use energy mostly at night when it is cheap, and are paid for energy produced during the day when it is most expensive.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 made investments in upgrading the electricity grid to a “Smart Grid” capable of net metering, but this change is not yet available everywhere. More than 40 states have some form of regulation that mandates that utilities offer net metering, but not Texas.8 Fortunately, some of Texas’ largest electrical providers, both private and public, have stepped up to offer net metering to their customers. Check with your local utility to see if they are able to measure the net energy you give to or take from the grid, and what agreements they have to pay small-scale solar power producers.
- Production Incentives
For residents of San Antonio, CPS Energy will become a national renewable energy leader when it introduces its “Solartricity” program. This program will pay owners of solar electric systems 27 cents for each kilowatt-hour they generate. “Solartricity” PV systems must be 25 kilowatts or greater. While system owners must pay the upfront cost of their system, CPS agrees to honor the 27 cent/kWh rate for 20 years. The program will be reimbursed by other CPS customers who choose to pay a premium for locally-generated solar power.9
- State and Municipal Programs
In some cases, cities or states have also created incentives to help businesses, customers, and tax-exempt institutions install solar. Sunset Valley is the only city in Texas with such a program so far – it supplements the Austin Energy utility rebate with a rebate of its own for homeowners who install solar electric systems.10 Unfortunately, at this time the incentive does not apply to non-profits.
- Other States Have Pioneered Additional Programs to Make Solar Affordable
While Texas has considered different incentives to make solar more affordable for houses of worship and other non-profits, other states have led the way on spurring PV development. The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Kentucky provides loans of up to $300,000 for a wide variety of investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including PV systems.11 These loans are available to non-profit organizations.
Some state governments have introduced their own incentive programs. California has a popular rebate program tied to the state’s goals for emissions reduction that is available to non-profits including houses of worship. Similar to utility rebate programs offered in areas of Texas, the California program pays owners an up-front cash incentive for solar installations based on their expected performance. The state also offers performance-based incentives, but the systems installed on houses of worship rarely qualify because of their small size.12 Another way that Texas could provide assistance to non-profits would be to establish a revolving fund to provide financing for PV installation.
- A Different Federal Tax Credit Could Help Houses of Worship and Other Non-Profits
As previously mentioned, the current federal incentives for PV installation are only helpful for taxpayers. However, there are other ways that the federal government could construct the incentives to make the benefit available to all consumers, including houses of worship and other non-profits. For example, the Alternative Fuels Tax Credit is structured to benefit all consumers, including non-profit institutions, because it credits the provider rather than the consumer of the fuel. Under this system, all consumers benefit from lower retail costs regardless of their tax status, and the tax credit is refundable for non-profits with on-site refueling stations.
The Solar Tax Credit could be modeled on the Alternative Fuels Tax in a number of ways to make solar power more affordable for houses of worship and other tax-exempt institutions. The tax credit could be applied to the solar installer rather than the purchaser, thereby lowering the installation cost. The credit could be assignable by the non-profit to the installer of its choice, so the non-profit would preserve price transparency. Finally, the tax credit could be refundable to non-profit consumers. Any one of these approaches would help houses of worship install solar and grow green energy jobs in Texas.13
II. Paying for Solar: Congregational Resources
While public and utility incentives are often able to cover 40-60 percent of the cost of solar installation, that still leaves a large expense that your congregation will have to pay. Many congregations fund this expense by using a combination of congregational and regional judicatory resources.
- Building and Renovation Funds and Loan Programs
Many congregations that consider and install PV modules turn to their building and renovation funds as a first source of funds. Some denominations have regional or national revolving funds or other loan programs specifically designated for renovating houses of worship – be sure to find out whether your denomination offers such a program, and if so, whether it covers PV module installation.
- Individual Contributions
While a congregation cannot access the federal tax credit, members can make individual cash gifts to support the effort. These donations, like any other charitable gift, are tax-exempt and can be counted as a deduction in the individual’s personal tax return. The donations are not eligible for the Solar Tax Credit because the individual will not own the PV system.
One creative approach taken by several congregations is the “sponsor-a-panel” approach. A solar array will include anywhere from six to 100 panels or more. Have individuals or families sponsor one or more panels, or for smaller contributions, individual cells.
III. Other Financing Options: Financing for a Long-term Investment
There are a number of other financing options that are possible, though the decision to pursue any of the following options should be made carefully after weighing the risks. However, these options could provide a good way to make solar installation more affordable for your congregation.
- Solar Endowment
The first proposal consists of viewing the PV installation as a long-term investment similar to an endowment. If a congregation already has an endowment fund and calculates that the energy savings (and possible net metering payments) will exceed the amount of money that would accrue to the fund from interest alone, it can withdraw the principal to pay for the installation of the PV system. The congregation can then use the net savings in electricity costs to pay back the fund over 20 to 25 years, depending on the size of the system.14
- Refinance Your Mortgage
As with the endowment, this option should be carefully weighed by a congregation for possible risk. With this approach, as with the solar endowment, energy savings are used as a source of “income” to pay back the loan over the coming decades. Houses of worship are often eligible for favorable lending rates.
- The Hybrid Approach
One Texas church found combining the above tactics to be just the ticket for financing their PV system. They refinanced their mortgage through their judicatory to take advantage of Austin’s commercial rebate and in time to offset their summer cooling bills. Once the array was installed and generating power, they raised money from parishioner donations to pay back the loan as soon as possible.
Other Means to Achieving the Creation Care End
Texas is a vast, geographically diverse state with great natural energy resources. There are many ways to achieve your congregation’s goals to protect the environment and reduce your dependence on traditional sources of energy. Along with solar, congregations can explore getting power from wind, biomass, and geothermal energy. Depending on your congregation’s situation, one or more of these renewable energy alternatives may be preferable to installing PV modules. Some of these options – such as geothermal systems – are much more feasible for new constructions. Others – such as buying renewable energy credits (RECs) from TXIPL – can easily be accomplished by any house of worship.
If your congregation is considering any new construction, be sure to consult Building a Firm Foundation: A Creation-Friendly Building Guide for Churches, a handbook from the National Council of Churches.
Texas is the nation’s wind power leader, currently generating 9,410 megawatts (MW) from wind energy projects.15 We have the potential capacity to expand that to 1.9 million MW thanks to abundant natural wind resources.16 Wind power is a multi-million dollar economy in Texas: turbine construction is a rapidly-expanding sector and innovations in wind power have the potential to keep our state in its leading role.
However, utility-scale wind farms are not the only way to capture the power of the wind. Individual congregations can consider installing their own windmills, on rooftops in urban areas or as stand-alone turbines in rural areas. The electric output depends on the size of the turbine and the wind speed. There are also other on-site options that capture the kinetic energy of the wind, including devices that look much like spiral staircases or mobiles. Wind is a viable option for congregations in west or north Texas, areas that sustain consistent winds for much of the day.
Biomass refers to any plant-derived organic material used as a fuel source. East Texas forests, West Texas farms, and urban areas all generate massive amounts of wood, waste, and alcohol fuels that can be burned to produce electricity or processed to produce transportation fuels. Although there are emissions associated with burning biomass, the plants absorb carbon as they grow and the process reuses waste that would otherwise end up in landfills and reduces fossil fuel dependency. Recently, power facilities have developed thermochemical, biochemical, and chemical conversion of biomass, which breaks down the source and converts it to a liquid, gas or solid and results in fewer emissions.
Small-scale combined heat and power (CHP) projects use woodchips and other source materials for generating heat and power; however, these projects are still largely experimental and have yet to go to commercial scale. While biomass is not really an electricity option for congregations at this point, biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel can be used to power congregational vehicles.
Geothermal power is another form of green and sustainable energy on the rise in Texas, and may be an option for energy as well as heating and cooling in new buildings. Using the heat from the earth in underground reservoirs, geothermal power converts thermal energy into electrical energy. Each geothermal unit contains a system of pipes, referred to as a ‘loop,’ that carries a fluid from the building to the earth’s heat source. The system exchanges the heat between the fluid from the pipes and the air in the building, and contains a heat distribution system which delivers the conditioned air to the building. Geothermal options are currently limited to new buildings. From 2007 to 2008, geothermal heat pump shipments in Texas increased from around 8,700 tons to 10,200 tons.17
Buy Green Energy from Your Utility
Some Texas utilities offer renewable energy programs that may allow your congregation to buy green power. Austin residents have long been able to participate in “GreenChoice,” in which they sign a contract with Austin Energy to purchase wind power from the utility at a set rate for a specified period of time – and these customers have actually ended up paying lower rates than “standard” fossil fuel energy customers in recent years due to the fluctuation in fossil fuel costs. CPS customers can sign up for the “Windtricity” program. Soon, San Antonio residents will be able to support the emerging solar power market by becoming “Solartricity” customers. In deregulated markets, customers can choose to get their energy from clean energy sources: all Green Mountain Energy customers purchase 100 percent renewable power from their utility.
Choosing green energy sources from your utility is not just a simple way to purchase clean power for your congregation, it also supports the development of industrial-scale renewable power projects. Austin Energy has gone to 10 percent wind solely due to its GreenChoice customers.18
Purchase Carbon Offsets or RECS
The simplest way for your congregation to go carbon-neutral is to calculate your average annual carbon emissions and purchase enough Renewable Energy Credits (RECs, or carbon offsets) to balance your emissions. Texas Impact sells RECs to houses of worship through TXIPL; many utilities, environmental non-profits, and other organizations also sell offsets. Visti the TXIPL website for more information about buying RECs.
So You’ve Decided to Go Solar
Five Steps to Getting Started
Step One: Appoint a Solar Research Team
This could just be the existing “green team” or conservation group in your congregation. You need a dedicated group of individuals to do the research, follow up with possible contractors, and be able to explain the different options to your congregation’s governing board and other members of the congregation. Consider how much your congregation would be willing to spend on a 30-year investment in clean power, one that will help create good-paying jobs in the local community and reduce global warming. Also develop a rough estimate of how many kilowatts you would like to install. Start by considering what your goals are, and what would be the best means to achieve those goals.
Step Two: Obtain an Energy Audit and Pursue Efficiency
The less energy your congregation uses, the further any PV module will go towards meeting those needs. Energy efficiency is the simplest and most cost-effective way to reduce energy costs and carbon emissions, and a congregation can work to implement an Energy Action Plan while simultaneously doing the research and other preparations to install a solar electric system.
Step Three: Find Out What Incentives Are Available in Your Area and Obtain Bids from Several Reliable Solar Installers
Utility and public incentives for installing solar electric systems will have a major impact on the cost to your congregation, so dedicate time to finding out what programs are available and how they work. If there is not a program in your area or if it is insufficient, think about what programs would make a PV system affordable for your congregation. Talk to your utility and public officials about the challenges your congregation faces. The different solar installers you contact will do much of the technical work for you. Once your congregation is serious about considering PV, solar electric installation companies will do a special audit of your building just to assess its solar capacity.
Once your congregation is ready to take the next step, you will want to get an estimate from at least three solar installers. Choose a reputable installer that will be your guide through the process. Quality contractors will provide a site assessment, often for free, to identify the best location for your solar array based on power production and incentive guidelines. Any necessary structural or electrical upgrades will be revealed during the assessment. The solar consultant may provide several options to help your congregation meet both your budget and your energy goals.
Step Four: Present a Plan to Your Congregation
Once you have bids from the different solar installers, present that information as well as various means of financing the PV system to the congregation. It is likely that members of your congregation will have a number of questions about the proposed array. Please contact Texas Impact/TXIPL if you would like one of our staff to be present to help answer those questions. You may want to consider asking one or more of the solar contractors to attend the presentation and meet directly with the decision makers. When choosing a solar installer, be sure to consider a company’s experience in commercial solar installation, including experience with houses of worship.
Step Five: Keep Walking
The process cannot be completed in a day, but the research and advocacy will pay off for decades to come. As Hall Hammond of the Episcopal Church of the Reconciliation says, “The lesson you learn in something like this is that you have to have advocates who are willing to be persistent and willing to overcome the apathy and caution. We have a responsibility to do what we can to sustain what we’ve been given, and this is one way we can do it.”
Episcopal Church of the Reconciliation
San Antonio, Texas
|Size of system:||14.8 kW|
|Annual energy production:||19,709 kWh|
|System Installed:||December 2009|
|System Cost:||$87,000 less $37,000 rebate = $50,000|
|Energy cost before solar:||$1830 per month|
|Value of electricity (est.):||$3600 per year|
|Estimated buy-back:||18.9 years|
|System life span:||30 years|
The parish formed an environmental stewardship committee in 2002 to become more environmentally conscious. They decided that instead of just telling parishioners what to do, they would “do things at the church level first.” After conducting an energy audit and implementing efficiency measures at the church, they conducted programs to help parishioners do energy efficiency and engage in recycling practices at home and supported community programs to help others. But still, they wanted to do more.
The decision to install a solar module took patience and persistence. The outdated electrical system needed to be brought up to code, and the CPS solar rebate program was suspended and ultimately reconfigured during the bid process. But their patience paid off. After the new rebate program was announced, the church was able to install a much higher-wattage system than they had previously considered without increasing the cost to the congregation. The rebate system is paying 43 percent of the system; the church is using $25,000 from its renewal fund and raising the rest from individuals.
I think it's important for the church to demonstrate that we have an interest in sustaining the creation that was given to us by God. We have a responsibility to do what we can to sustain what we've been given, and this is one way we can do it. We also wanted to set an example for others."
- Hall Hammond, Environmental Stewardship Committee Member
Friends Meeting of Austin
|Size of system:||19.5 kW|
|Annual energy production:||26,900 kWh|
|System Installed:||January 2008|
|Cost of system:||$156,000 less $85,000 rebate = $71,000|
|Value of electricity:||$2700 per year|
|System life span:||30 years|
The Earthcare Committee at the Friends Meeting of Austin has been incredibly busy in recent years, working to lighten the meeting’s carbon footprint. Installing a solar electric system was part of a comprehensive approach to, in the words of Quaker founder George Fox, “walk gently over the earth.” The committee conducted an energy audit, changed their meeting habits to save energy, set up bicycle racks, and addressed cracked water ducts and drafts.
Friends Meeting of Austin learned firsthand how sturdy the panels were when a severe hailstorm struck the meeting hall in March 2009. The roof was so badly damaged that it had to be replaced. However, the three solar sub-arrays survived the storm, and were restored to their previous positions once the roof was fixed.
Because the three sub-arrays located on the congregation’s buildings are pitched at slightly different angles, they experience peak efficiency at different times. On balance, the array yields higher than the originally estimated energy harvest. In the first year, the module generated 26,900 KwH - 5623 KwH more than the congregation used! Friends Meeting of Austin is now a net producer of electricity, receiving credit on their electricity bill for the clean energy they provide to the rest of the community.
One of the concerns we had [when moving into a larger building] was that we would be using a lot more resources. This way we're more in harmony with the space."
- Belle Zars, Friends Meeting of Austin
Energy Audit Companies:
- North Texas Association of Electricity Engineers (Dallas)
- Ideal Impact, Inc. (Dallas)
- Priority Power Management (Dallas, Midland, Houston)
- Green Zone Home (Austin)
- Current Energy (Dallas)
- Your electric utility may also be able to provide energy audit assistance.
Austin Energy provides a list of Energy Conservation Audit and Disclosure auditors.
Solar Installation Companies:
- Meridian Solar (Austin)
- Texas Solar Energy Society
- Solar San Antonio lists installers in the San Antonio and Austin
Online Resources about Energy Efficiency for Houses of Worship:
- Energy Star for Houses of Worship (Department of Energy)
- Cool Congregations Carbon Footprint Calculator (The Regeneration Project/ Interfaith Power & Light)
- Cool Congregations Carbon Checklist and Action Menu (Interfaith Power & Light)
- This Old House of Worship (Connecticut IPL)
- Energy Audit form (Kansas IPL)
- Building A Firm Foundation: A Creation-Friendly Building Guide for Churches (National Council of Churches-USA)
- Bottom Line Ministries that Matter: Congregational Stewardship with Energy Efficiency and Clean Energy Technologies
- U.S. Green Building Council
- North Texas Association of Energy Engineers
- Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE)
- Utility Energy Efficiency Programs For Small & Large Businesses: Texas (UC Berkeley)
- Texas Electric Choice (Public Utilities Commission)
- Texas Electricity Comparison
1: According to the EIA, in October 2009 Texas generated 11,703 of its 30,419 thousand MWh from coal, or 38.47%. Report No.: DOE/EIA-0226 (2010/02), released February 26, 2010. Texas State Energy Profile, accessed March 2, 2010.
2: Environmental Protection Agency News Release, "EPA Announces Houses of Worship Can Now Earn Energy Star Label and Reduce Their Carbon Footprint: Approximately 370,000 Can Track Their Energy Use." September 1, 2009.
3: Energy Information Agency Electric Power Annual 2007. State Data Tables 1990-2007.
4: Total shipments in 2008: 986,504. Total shipments in 2003: 109,357. Energy Information Agency Form EIA-63B: Solar Photovoltaic Cell/Module Manufacturing Activities, released December 2009. "Solar Photovoltaic Cell/ Manufacturing Activities," accessed March 2, 2010.
5: U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "PV Panel Disposal and Recycling," accessed March 2, 2010.
6: EnergySTAR. "EnergySTAR for Congregations," accessed March 2, 2010.
8: Database on State Incentives and Renewable Energy (DSIRE). "Rules, Regulations, and Policies for Renewable Energy: Summary Table," accessed March 2, 2010.
9: CPS Energy. "Solartricity -- Share the Sun with CPS Energy," accessed March 2, 2010.
10. Database on State Incentives and Renewable Energy (DSIRE). "Texas," accessed March 2, 2010.
11. Database on State Incentives and Renewable Energy (DSIRE). "Mountain Association for Community Economic Development - Energy Efficient Enterprise Loan Program," accessed March 2, 2010.
12. California Interfaith Power & Light. "Financing Your Solar (PV) System: A Guide for Congregations," May 2007. Accessed October, 2009.
13: Texas Impact. "Background on Solar Tax Credits." 2009.
14: The solar endowment, as well as several other ideas in this section, are also discussed in a 2007 handbook from California IPL. California Interfaith Power & Light. "Financing Your Solar (PV) System: A Guide for Congregations," May 2007. Accessed October, 2009.
15: American Wind Energy Association. "U.S. Wind Energy Projects - Texas," accessed March 2, 2010.
16: National Renewable Energy Laboratory and AWS TrueWind. "Estimates of Windy Land Area and Wind Energy Potential by State for Areas>= 30% Capacity Factor at 80 Meters." Released February 4, 2010. Available from U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "Texas Wind Map and Resource Potential," accessed March 2, 2010.
17: Energy Information Agency. "Table 4.6: Geothermal Heat Pump Shipments by Destination, 2007 and 2008," released November 2009. Geothermal Heat Pump Manufacturing Activities, 2008," accessed March 2, 2010.
18: Austin Energy. "Austin Energy Among Nation’s Top 25 Intelligent Utilities," September 2, 2009. Accessed March 2, 2010.
"Approximately 40% of Texas’ electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants" was changed to "almost 40%."
"In 2007, shipments of photovoltaic (PV) modules in the United States reached 280,000 modules per year – nearly six times the number of units received just five years earlier" was updated in light of more recent data from the EIA.
"The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy anticipates that rising amounts of PV waste will prompt the industry to establish recycling processes around the year 2020" was changed to "The Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy reports that the solar industry is already preparing for the rising amounts of PV waste expected around the year 2020."
"CPS Energy will become a national renewable energy leader when it introduces its “Solartricity” program in January of 2010" was changed to "when it introduces its “Solartricity” program" in light of the CPS announcement that the program was on hold while the company considers its Strategic Energy Plan.
"Texas is the nation’s wind power leader, currently generating 8,797 megawatts (MW) from wind energy projects" changed to "9,410 megawatts" in light of more recent American Wind Energy Association data.
"We have the potential capacity to expand that to 136,100 MW thanks to abundant natural wind resources" was updated to "1.9 million MW" using data from the NREL and AWS Truewind.
"Starting in January 2010, San Antonio residents will be able to support the emerging solar power market by becoming “Solartricity” customers" was changed to "Soon, San Antonio..." for reasons cited above.
Special thanks to Brooke Ferguson, Trenton Cogdill and Jim Phillips for their contributions to this report.
(Photo "Solar Panels Dutch Home" by User JT used under a Creative Commons-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.)
(Photo "solar panels" by User Christine used under a Creative Commons-Attribution-ShareAlike License.)