A couple of years ago, a small group of people with a passion for Earth Care signed up their church, First Presbyterian of Saline, for membership with Michigan IPL. The church then conducted an energy audit and implemented some efficiency upgrades—from basic programmable thermostats all the way up to energy-saving appliances. This effort not only saved money, but also gave congregants the satisfaction of knowing they were doing the right thing by being responsible stewards of the earth and thus caring for their neighbors.
Later, in April 2013, a couple of people from First Presbyterian attended a presentation about Michigan IPL’s Solar Aggregation initiative (which has morphed into Go Solar). They were enthusiastic about the idea of solar panels, and they wanted the church to consider the project. Initially, finance elder Kurt Leutheuser did not share their excitement. With so many other responsibilities and financial obligations to consider, he felt this wasn’t something the church needed to take on. However, seeing the efforts of his fellow congregants, Kurt felt it was only fair to hear and evaluate the potential project. A civil engineer by training, and a 20-year member of the church, Kurt would be a key player in such decision-making, with both the technical knowledge and the clout to influence the decision.
First Presbyterian requested site assessments from two different companies, both of which indicated that the church could accommodate a PV system of up to 20 kW—the maximum size allowed under DTE’s SolarCurrents program. Members of the group felt that, if they were going to do a solar installation, they didn’t want it to be a token effort, and they were excited about the possibility of installing a significant array that would generate enough energy to cover most of the church’s electricity needs.
Michigan IPL’s Solar Aggregation initiative includes the option of a lease-to-own financing structure. But the church leadership was wary of going into debt and entering into a long-term financing relationship. Membership and thus income can be precarious and, if they were to move forward, they needed to do so at no risk to the church. When the church had its stained glass windows restored a couple of years ago, the congregation had raised the funds and self-financed—so this was a familiar and more comfortable model.
After the team spent several months evaluating the proposals from two contractors, the Session (the church’s governing body) decided in December of 2013 to allow the team to move forward with the project, provided it could win congregational support and secure the necessary funds. In January, Kurt proposed the project to the congregation. Later, Sunventrix, the chosen solar contractor, delivered a presentation and brought a sample solar panel, inverter and other parts to the church. They showed a visualization of the final result and pointed out where on the roof the panels would be placed, giving people a tangible sense of the project.
Working Together to Win Hearts and Minds
Throughout the process, a core team of about 10 church members strategized about how promote the project and engage the congregation’s support—they wrote newsletter articles, designed a pledge system, spoke about the project from the pulpit, and put out a comment box to solicit ideas, concerns and questions. The church launched a capital campaign that lasted until mid-March to raise the funds.
By the end of the campaign, about one third of the congregation’s members had contributed an average gift of $800. The church also drew from its reserve funds to offer a pledge system, which would allow people to give in monthly installments. In total, they raised approximately $43,000.
How Much Did it Cost?
With this amount of pledged money, First Presbyterian decided to move forward with the project. In June of 2014, Sunventrix installed a system that is just shy of 15kW, or 56 panels, at a total cost of $46,600, $2,700 of which was offset by renewable energy credits. The system was fully operational August 8, 2014.
All those in favor… All those opposed…
Members of the congregation who favored the project liked it for a variety of reasons. Lowering utility costs would allow the church to spend more on its mission. Some were motivated by the idea of getting away from fossil fuels and saw this as a way to take local action about a global issue. Solar panels are still rare enough to have a “gee whiz” quality to them, and some folks were excited by the technology. Because the church is located in downtown Saline, the panels would be highly visible, and it was appealing to know that the project would catch public attention and potentially attract new members. And many people got excited because this was a collective effort—something that people couldn’t do individually.
Of course, not everyone was on board. Some thought it wouldn’t look nice, or they were simply tired of being asked for money. Others saw the project as frivolous because of their belief that global warming does not exist, and this critique opened the door to a host of hot button issues. Those who advocated for the project didn’t want to split the congregation or needlessly politicize the issue. So they took a soft approach to the project’s detractors, and simply said that if they didn’t want to participate, that was fine; the campaign was being offered for those who wanted to support it.
Cost and Energy Savings Breakdown
Based on Sunventrix’s proposal, the church determined that each panel would cost approximately $800/panel installed (including the racking system and the inverter). Like seeing the solar panel in person—being able to touch it and see its dimensions up close—having this dollar figure available helped church members get clear understanding of the investment they were being asked to make.
Conservatively, the company estimates the system will generate enough energy to cover 66% of congregation’s electricity use. Roughly, the church’s annual electricity usage is $3,500 (based upon 24,960kWh spent during 2012)—a 66% savings would shave $2,300 off of that expense during the first year and provide more savings as the price of electricity escalates over time. This cost will be further reduced by the renewable energy credits it will receive through DTE’s Solar Currents program. Because the church was able to fundraise most of the upfront cost (and self-finance the balance using its own reserve funds, which it will repay within 2 years), it will begin to reap these savings quickly.
UPDATE: October 2015
After the success of this phase of the project, the congregation added 10 more panels (bringing the total up to 66) in June 2015. The church calculates that between August 2014 and July 2015 its panels generated enough electricity to cover 65.8% of their total usage, yielding a 73.1% cost savings, or $2,987. With the additional panels in place (adding 18% to its solar capacity), and with the cost of electricity rising, these savings are expected to increase in the August 2015-July 2016 period and over the life of the panels.
The Church shared data on its solar energy generation and savings. Compared to 2012-13, the congregation saved 73% on its electricity bill with its new panels, or almost $3,000 in one year.
There is no singular formula for success. But here are a few conditions that helped this project succeed at First Presbyterian of Saline (prioritized by the church in order of significance):
- There was a small but dedicated group of people in the congregation, passionate about environmental stewardship, who reminded the church of their calling to be good stewards of God’s earth. This group took the initiative to gather information about the possibility of installing solar panels and brought their findings to the church Session.
- The team promoted the project to the congregation over the period of a couple of months. They took their time to win hearts and minds, engaged other members, sought questions and provided answers, while also seeking to maintain social harmony and not getting caught up in divisive political issues. The team focused on gaining the financial support of those who were interested, and not worrying too much about the rest.
- The project’s main champion had the power, social standing and technical expertise to be an effective spokesperson. His desire to treat his fellow congregants with fairness also enabled him to overcome his own early misgivings.
- The church built on the success of previous undertakings, including property acquisition, sanctuary renovation, and the financing of the stained glass restoration. The benefits and lessons learned from these projects helped lay the groundwork for embarking on this substantial investment.
- Several informational presentations were made to the congregation, and church members had the opportunity to see and touch the solar panels on site. The solar contractor personally led a forum after Sunday service, which gave the congregants confidence that they were hiring an expert who could carry out the project successfully.
- The pastor was supportive of the project.
- The falling cost of solar panels and DTE Energy’s Solar Currents program, which provides usage credits for on-site solar, helped make solar energy more affordable for the congregation.
- The congregation had the personal and institutional financial resources to pay for the project, and was able to self-finance it in a way that was both comfortable for the donors and low-risk for the congregation. Breaking the cost down to a unit price basis gave each donor a sense of tangible ownership in the entire project.