Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

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Climate action in a parish: Let there be solar light

The Diocese of Arlington’s Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish offers its experience of installing solar panels as a template for other churches to follow. This article was published in the May-June 2019 issue of NewsNotes.

A Catholic church in northern Virginia has brought new meaning to the phrase from Genesis “Let there be light.” Our Lady Queen of Peace (OLQP) Catholic Church in Arlington recently completed a 319 panel (95kw) solar installation on three of its buildings, providing electricity for approximately 48 percent of parish needs. During their 25-year life cycle, the panels are expected to reduce carbon emissions equal to taking 195 cars off the road and planting 31,000 trees. Best of all, this has been done at no cost to the parish.

Installing solar panels has been a longtime goal of the pastor, Spiritan Father Tim Hickey, who, along with the Integrity of Creation Committee, has been “greening” the parish for the past five years. Inspired by Pope Frances’ encyclical Laudato Si’ and concerned with the rise of the earth’s temperature, they have studied Church teachings and taken steps to put words into action. 

The parish has banned plastic bottles from campus, purchased reusable dishes for parish functions, and planted an organic garden to support the food pantry ministry. During a recent major facilities renovation, the parish was sure to use sustainable materials, installing energy efficient HVAC, ecofriendly insulation, energy saving appliances, LED lights, bamboo flooring, and carpeting made from recycled plastic bottles. As Fr. Hickey noted, “We have worked hard to make environmentally conscious decisions.”

The culmination of “going green” was the installation of solar panels. But where would the resources to achieve this come from? To solve this challenge, an innovative deal was struck among four entities: the diocesan building authorities, a local solar installer, the electric utility, and a generous parishioner.

Here’s how it worked: The installation cost ($235,000) was financed by a parishioner who created a dedicated LLC for the project. This LLC was able to benefit from a 30 percent federal tax credit and depreciation allowances from its taxable income. While continuing to pay the regular price for electrical consumption, the parish “sells” the electricity generated by the solar panels to the utility at a favorable rate, as negotiated in a power purchase agreement.

The parish then uses the proceeds from the sales to pay back the investor over eight years. In addition, OLQP expects to net about $3000 annually from the power produced. “This is a good deal for both parties,” says Luc Dewulf, a parishioner who is very involved in the project, “and we are honoring God’s creation as well. Saving money and saving the earth is always a good idea.”

Besides producing solar energy, OLQP meets its electricity needs by contracting with Arcadia Power for energy produced by wind power as the parish works toward the goal of 100 percent renewable energy consumption.

Unique to OLQP’s installation is a blue cross-shaped design on the main solar array. A first in the United States, and perhaps in the world, the cross is created by a new colored film technology which allows for custom designs to be created on the panels. “Google maps will show our church with a cross on it.” remarked Luc Dewulf. (See photos of the panels at http://bit.ly/BlueCrossSolar )

Image: Blue cross inlayed on the rooftop solar panels at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Arlington, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Ipsun Solar.

Concern for the planet was at the heart of the church’s effort to get solar panels up and running says Fr. Hickey. “The people who are most hurt by climate change are the poorest in the world. We are trying to put the pope’s encyclical into action and putting solar panels on the roof is a very visible sign of that commitment." 

By developing a template for transitioning to solar energy, OLQP has already inspired and assisted other parishes to start the process. Although states have different processes and regulations, power purchase agreements like that of OLQP can be arranged with a single investor or a group of investors. 

Reducing carbon emissions is essential to a healthy planet. Imagine the impact of even 10 percent of Catholic churches around the world switching to solar power. Wouldn’t it be great to see thousands of crosses appearing on Google Earth! Let there be light – solar light!

Faith in action:

  • For more information about the solar panels at Our Lady Queen of Peace, contact Bill Larme, OLQP Integrity of Creation Committee Co-Chair at blarme@msn.com.
  • For renewable energy project development and management services, consult Catholic Energies (https://www.catholicenergies.org/), a program of the Catholic Climate Covenant.
  • Or, if you are in the Northern Virginia, Washington D.C. and Maryland area, contact Ipsun Solar (https://www.ipsunsolar.com/), the company used by OLQP to install their solar electric system.