Our Solar Journey at United Church of Chapel Hill
On November 6, 2015, the latest photovoltaic array on a North Carolina house of worship went online. The 84.76 kW, 326 panel system will generate 60% of our annual electricity needs at United Church of Chapel Hill (UCCH) and reduce our overall carbon footprint by a minimum of 44% next year and for years to come. The project was funded as part of a congregation-wide, multi-purpose capital campaign using a “donation model” with the option for individual donors to receive North Carolina state tax credits for the portion of the campaign devoted to the solar project.
Our solar journey began in 2011 when a subcommittee of United Earth Ministries (UEM) formed to explore significant energy saving and renewable energy options for the church. UEM is a committee of the Board of Justice, Outreach and Service, housed in this board because of the intersection of care of God’s creation, and both social and intergenerational justice. Prior to the solar project, UEM had laid ground work with the congregation by sponsoring education and devotional programs for adults and youth, and by working with the building and grounds volunteers and staff toward sustainability by going after the “low hanging fruit” of energy efficiency. By 2011, with the science of climate change strengthening, we began to think beyond energy efficiency, fact-finding and brainstorming about renewable energy sources and financing.
Initially, we investigated both solar and geothermal HVAC, and concluded that solar was our only realistic choice. We then looked into funding options for solar that would allow us to benefit from both state and federal tax credits using the standard calculus of “return on investment” and the concept of forming a small limited liability company (LLC) with a few investors as funders. The LLC idea was that the net cost to the church would be minimal and to the investors virtually nil. What we concluded after many months of research and discussion was that such an approach would likely result in an array that would generate less than 3% of our electricity needs and exclude most of the congregation from participating in the project.
Our breakthrough came when we realized that our thinking about funding was out of sync with our faith and mission as a congregation. The “return on investment” (ROI) calculus was the wrong metric. We remembered that care of God’s creation was/is part of our call to faith and mission. As a congregation our decisions on mission work have always been based on what is right to do. Once we discern what is right, we figure out how to fund the mission. UEM realized we needed to think of the solar project in the same way. This opened the way not only to dream of a much larger system but also to invite the whole congregation to participate in this mission.
As UEM was coming to this important realization, our church leadership was also realizing that it was time for a capital campaign to do some critical maintenance of our building. They decided to think big and develop a “vision 2020” for the whole church. All the boards were invited to propose high priority projects for the campaign to be launched in 2013. UEM was ready and proposed the large-scale project that would reduce our carbon footprint substantially and align with the global needs identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We also wanted a project that would have a visible component to act as a “billboard for care of God’s creation” and hopefully as an inspiration for other churches, synagogues, mosques and temples in the state. The congregation embraced the project whole-heartedly. All those who participated in the capital campaign contributed a portion of their gifts to the solar project. Our roof was made solar ready in 2014 and the solar array was designed, approved by the congregation, and installed in 2015. This has been one of our most exciting and energizing mission projects in recent years.
We are fortunate to have members of our congregation who were able to provide technical expertise on this project. Among the talents on the energy committee were engineers who asked and received answers to all the important technical questions and managed the project, a lawyer who researched and explained the federal and state tax credit rules to the church leaders, and energetic volunteers who communicated the project to lay leaders and the general congregation. Once we decided on the donation model, we interviewed three solar installers, developed a rating instrument to help us choose among them, and settled on YES! Solar Solutions as our provider. YES! calls the UCCH installation their crown jewel, because it is large and especially because it includes a highly visible portion on a trellis that spans over 120 feet across the front of the church. This beautiful 76-panel array on the trellis truly is a billboard for care of God’s creation and a daily reminder to all who enter the building of the congregation’s commitment to sustainability and future generations.
Some facts about the UCCH project that might be of interest include:
- 326 REC solar panels (260 watts each)
- 4 SolarEdge inverters
- 163 SolarEdge optimizers
- 5,720 square feet of roof
- We can monitor the function of each pair of panels individually through the SolarEdge website and quickly identify problems for rapid resolution
- We are net-metering which means that we use our own solar power but have no storage batteries.
- When we make extra energy it goes back to the grid and Duke Energy subtracts an equivalent amount of energy charges from our bill, saving us money.
- The solar panels will degrade by no more than 0.7% per year and after 25 years they will still perform at 80% or more of their original capacity. They will likely continue to produce electricity for much longer.
- The project cost approximately $240,000, all of which was raised by donation within the larger capital campaign. If we were measuring ROI, the project will pay for itself in energy savings over its useful life
Our system’s 84.76 kilowatts will generate 110,920 kilowatt hours of electricity each year, enough to power 10 homes each year and annually equivalent to
- Removing 151,000 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere
- Eliminating 149,000 vehicle-miles from the road
- Preventing 90,000 pounds of coal from being burned
- Planting 1760 trees to help sequester carbon
- In combination with energy efficiency measures undertaken at UCCH regarding HVAC and lighting systems, we have reduced our carbon footprint by 53% per year.
The congregation of UCCH is thrilled to be harvesting clean, renewable energy from the sun. This is the story of our love for the world and our hope to be a good family member with our sister faith communities who are also working for the welfare of all. We are joining 14 other faith communities in collectively bringing 336 kW of faithful power to North Carolina. We are eager to share our story and our practical experience with interested faith communities. We hope that this work will “go viral” and many other congregations will commit to help our world transition to truly clean, renewable and sustainable energy, honoring God and preserving the world for future generations.
May it be so!
Visit United Church of Chapel Hill online at: http://unitedchurch.org