First United Church of Christ and Bethel Lutheran Church in Northfield won the lottery last week.
The Minnesota Department of Commerce, Division of Energy Resources, notified First UCC and Bethel that they were the recipients of funds through the Made in Minnesota Solar Incentive Program that will allow the two churches to install solar panels. They were chosen through a lottery that saw hundreds of applicants.
The incentives, paid over the course of 10 years, will allow First UCC to place a 15 Kilowatt solar array on the south-facing roof and within a matter of years will pay for itself and then allow the church to save a substantial amount of money on its energy costs, not to mention reducing its carbon footprint.
“The congregation has been concerned for a while about reducing its carbon footprint,” said First UCC senior minister Todd Smith Lippert. “Climate change is a big concern among those in the congregation and it’s something I’m concerned about as well.”
First UCC Moderator Mary Carlson agrees.
“Installing a solar array is one step that our church can take to respond to God’s call to care for creation and to respond to climate change, the most all-encompassing social justice issue of our time,” said Carlson, who is practicing what she preaches by having had solar panels installed on her home years ago.
Lippert said that at a special congregational meeting held March 16, members voted unanimously to install 39 panels, which would account for 40 percent to 50 percent of the church’s electric usage. In the presentation, committee members were “excited” to tell the congregation that the solar panels will prevent 30,000 pounds of CO2 from being released every year, which is the equivalent to 1,600 gallons of gasoline not being burned every year.
The overall cost of the First UCC project will be $34,000 with the yearly rebates factored in, Lippert said. He said the congregation can expect payback to be in 14 years.
“Moving forward, we’re really gaining,” he said. “Fourteen years is not that long and once the system is paid for our savings will be substantial.”
Bethel Lutheran Church
While First UCC is all in, Bethel is committed to having solar panels but is still weighing the benefits of owning the system outright or having the provider – All Energy Solar – own it for 20 years.
Under the latter scenario, All Energy would capture the rebates, while Bethel would benefit from the capped rates for 10 years. And while the life expectancy of the panels is 40 years, after 20 years, Bethel would be saving money on its energy costs for years to come.
Regardless of what scenario Bethel chooses, the 40 Kilowatt system will cover about 22 percent of the church’s power use, which makes it a viable economic decision.
“As a congregation, we are still trying to determine which direction to go,” said Bethel Trustee Craig Hall. “The will is there, but we just need to see numbers to see which way to go. All the feedback we’re getting from the congregation is that this is a good move for us. People are very excited.”
Senior pastor Timothy McDermott says the move to solar energy has been a long time coming for many at Bethel.
“This has been a dream of many members at Bethel,” he said. “It’s a dream come true because it unites ecological interest and faith for so many of our members. It will be worth every penny.”
One of Lippert’s interests as a pastor is offering an interpretation of the Christian faith that helps address the ecological challenges people face. That is why he is especially excited to be among the first to commit to a solar array project at First UCC. In essence, he says First UCC and Bethel are starting a trend.
“As a church, we are called to care for God’s creations,” he said. “I believe we are called to lead. The idea of setting an example and being a community that is out in front is something we were thinking about all along.”
Lippert says there is a lot of south-facing roof space in Northfield, thereby making it possible for more churches and businesses to take on similar projects to those happening at First UCC and Bethel Lutheran. He believes if more churches in town decide to go that route, the impact will be far greater.
“We’re hopeful people will see it and decide if a church thinks it is important, we should be doing it,” Lippert said. “The more voices saying it is an issue will hopefully make this just the beginning of something much larger in Northfield.”
Hall would like to think Bethel is helping to start a trend by doing the project, as well, but says the bottom line for his congregation has a lot to do with economics.
“There’s no doubt that this is a way for us to be good stewards of Bethel’s resources and the gift of the sun,” Hall said. “In the end, we’re hoping this is a good economic move, too. We’re hoping to have 15 years of free energy.”