Going for the Sun: Nevada City United Methodist Church joins the solar family
August 1, 2018
Conversion is a familiar word in Christian church circles. However, converting 'souls' is one thing, but what about converting a church's source of electricity to solar? That's quite another issue. At the Nevada City United Methodist Church, the notion of converting its primary electrical energy source to solar was not a new development.
"The idea of installing solar panels has been floating around the church for over 10 years," commented Chris Newsom, active member of the church's solar committee. "In 2007, our Church & Society Committee was deeply concerned about the environment, and particularly the harmful consequences of electricity generation through fossil fuels."
With the awareness that 80 percent of commercially generated electricity comes from fossil fuels, contributing significantly to the harmful effects of global warming, Newsom, an early supporter of the idea, commented, "the harmful consequences of electricity generation through capturing the sun's rays are—nothing."
Extensive investigation of such a project was undertaken, including the inspection of the church's roof structure, sun exposure, cost projections, and location in historic Nevada City. Although It was determined that a solar installation was, indeed, feasible, the idea had to be dropped, as the cost of installing such a system was, at that time, too excessive for the church's budget.
The vision revisited
The Church and Society team didn't give up.
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Its members were increasingly alarmed by the catastrophic effects of a warming planet, and the acceleration of greenhouse gases. They also wanted to join with the many other churches and agencies who had made decisions to reduce their carbon footprint. This would be an important step in its stewardship of God's creation, and that planning for a future with reduced pollution and less extraction of the earth's limited resources is what the church is called to do as a community of faith. With an awareness of the steady decline in the cost of solar, and the major advances in solar technology, in 2017, some eleven years later, the team decided to begin feasibility studies again.
The chair of the church's Board of Trustees, Gail Green, established a solar committee.
"It was a long process," notes the church's pastor, Rev. Kristin Sachen. "There were many issues and hurdles to address, particularly the cost and whether or not the church could afford it."
Months of exploration followed, eventually with bids requested from four area solar companies. A detailed financial analyses of the cost/benefits of such an array was developed, and the results were startling.
A Visionary Payoff
Could the church actually save money by installing solar panels?
Some, understandably, were skeptical. Figures were gathered; costs were estimated; loans were projected, and — surprisingly — as graphs were presented to the church council, it was demonstrated that, with some creative for financing of the project, the church could actually realize a reduction in its electricity bill — starting with the first month after installation.
Sustainable Energy Group (SEG) of Grass Valley was chosen as the contractor. After a thorough review, with a bid amount of approximately $41,000, a big question remained — "How are we possibly going to pay for this?"
Then prayer, commitment, and creativity stepped in: ask members of the congregation to support the project with advance donations. Amazingly, nearly one-half of the bid amount was pledged, reducing the size of the loan to just over $20,000.
As SEG project designer Penn Martin commented, "To me, one of the most exciting aspects of this project is how it got funded. The church congregation raised about half the money through donations, there was a poetry reading at the church, very well attended, and the remainder is being financed through the county's mPower program."
Seeing these carefully analyzed figures, and in complete sympathy with the environmental benefits, a special church conference unanimously, and enthusiastically, voted "yes" for the project. Trustee's chair Green has happily noted that, the minute the solar switch is turned on, the church's monthly electrical bill will be much lower — by as much as $150 a month — because the monthly loan payments will be that much lower than if the church had kept the same utility company's electrical services.
The loan figures to be paid off in 7 or 8 years, at which time, with the church now generating 75 percent of its electrical needs, will only need to pay the utility company the cost of the remaining 25 percent.
The Spectacular Installation
As the day for installation grew close, SEG project director Brian Gardner was asked what one might expect to see that morning. After some thought, he replied, "It will be a spectacle!"
Truly it was.
In the early morning of Wednesday, July 25, a huge "gradall" fork-lift lumbered down Mill St., the narrow one block link between Broad and Spring Street. A group of five young workmen appeared, draped with ropes over their shoulders, tool belts strapped to their waists, helmets for protection — looking like rock climbers getting ready to scale a Yosemite monolith — began their ascent to the heights of the church's steep rooftop.
The fork lift gently began elevating groups of four solar modules 43 feet up to the edge of the church's roofline. Then, with great caution, skill and experience, the rooftop 'climbers' carefully lifted the shiny black solar panels into their individual 'resting places.' A small group of church members watch with gratitude as the first concrete element of their vision was realized before their eyes.
Architectural Design and Technology
Penn Martin, when asked about his design process, stated that, as he began the design for the solar array, "my deepest concern was for the architectural integrity of the project." Because of the church's very visible location at the top of Broad Street, Martin noted,
"My first impulse was to consider the visual impact of adding solar panels to the church. Whatever we did, it had to blend in."
The church had previously received an enthusiastic go-ahead from the Nevada City Planning Commission for the project, so Martin specifically zeroed in on the panels themselves. "I chose black, both the cells themselves and with a black backing. These will blend nicely with the black roof of the church. The panels themselves are made in the USA, actually in Hillsboro, Oregon, and are made of aluminum and crystalline silicon….sand!"
Complimenting Nevada City's Energy Goals
Not only does this installation help the pocketbooks of church members, it runs parallel with Nevada City's adopted goal of relying solely on renewable sources for its energy use.
In August 2017, the Nevada City council passed a resolution establishing a goal for Nevada City's electricity to come from 100 percent renewable sources by 2030, and for all of its energy to come from renewable sources by 2050. A new committee, the "100 percent Renewables Committee," was established by the Nevada City council, its first task to assess the city's current progress in moving toward these sustainability goals.
Rev. Don Baldwin, retired minister related to the church, commented, "We are delighted to be joining the "solar family" within Nevada County — the many homes, churches, businesses and agencies with solar power already in operation. We know we're not the first on the block to have made this transition, but we're delighted to finally be there! It's also thrilling to see that many more are now able to consider the huge benefit that solar offers — both financially and environmentally."
A Bright Future
"It's truly a win-win scenario," one church member explained. "We will now save money each month on our electric utility bill, and at the same time, by switching to a clean and renewable energy source — the sun, we help save the planet! That sure makes for a brighter future, not only for our congregation, but also helps us fulfill our sense of Christian stewardship to care for the earth."
Observing the installation, pastor Sachen, commented that she loved the idea of modern things happening to the old.
"It's like 'old dogs' learning 'new tricks!'"
She was thrilled when she had heard that the Nevada City Planning Commission was enthusiastically 'on board' with the project.
"They were all 'thumbs up' – very pro sustainable energy!"
And when asked what this meant for her church members, she reflected, "This was a great 'we can do it' moment — a clear investment in the future. We've been here a long time, and we plan to be for a long time to come!"
Don Baldwin is a retired United Methodist Minister and Chair of the coordinating team for the Nevada County Climate Change Coalition. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org