Solar Panels for St. Paul's UCC
St. Paul's UCC formed its Earthwise Team in 2009. At that time the church budget was very tight, so our first efforts focused on earth stewardship goals that could be attained without much expense and, more importantly, save the church money. Activities were centered around behavioral changes, both for members of our congregation in their personal energy use and in the operation of our physical facility. Simply by turning off the lights and setting the thermostat to a lower temperature, we were able to cut our energy consumption by over 30%.
We also arranged for an energy audit with Xcel in 2009. This provided a number of recommendations, but many involved expenditures beyond our funding capacity. We did a number of inexpensive things such as gradually converting to more efficient lighting as older bulbs and fixtures failed, plugging leaks in the ventilation systems, and maintaining equipment.
Early in 2010, we were fortunate to enter into a working relationship with consultant Ken Duvio. Ken is committed to the concept of recommissioning older buildings. His main focus was on our heating system. He found a host of problems with valves and controls that could be fixed at modest cost and with rebates from Xcel. In 2012, Ken suggested changing (for about $10,000) the boilers and the four most heavily used areas to electronic controls that allow remote programming and monitoring. Using this system, it's possible to collect detailed performance data and use that information to turn heat on and off with great precision. This minimizes the lead time in calling for heat so that rooms come up to the desired temperature “just in time.”
Simultaneously, St. Paul's UCC learned from Cherokee Park United Church that they had completed a solar panel project. Cherokee Park received grants that paid for most of their project, and they started generating their own electricity, which served most of their need. We had hit a new, lower plateau on energy costs, but realized that further savings could only be achieved with solar panels. We calculated that solar panels would not be able to eliminate our electricity expenses, but could achieve reduction to a new low.
Our Earthwise team investigated and found that grants were available from three sources:
- US Government for economic stimulus
- the State of Minnesota to promote Minnesota businesses
- Xcel Energy to promote more local sources of power generation
The grants would cover most of the cost of the project.
We learned that there are several prerequisites that must be met before grants will be awarded to a solar panel project:
- An Xcel energy audit (no more than three years earlier) must be completed to identify smaller, less expensive options for conserving energy. Recommendations should be implemented where possible.
- A structural engineering analysis must be performed for the roofs where the solar panels are likely to be placed, to assure that the roofs are strong enough to bear the weight of the panels.
- Energy usage data (natural gas and electricity) must be obtained from Xcel Energy over several years to determine the energy needs and patterns of use. This should also show whether current energy conservation projects are reducing energy usage.
The Earthwise Committee contacted three solar panel companies and asked them to submit proposals:
- Sun Dial Solar
- Innovative Power Systems (IPS)
- Blue Horizon
The project was to be placed on a flat roof two stories high, with the solar array confined to the center of the roof, a sufficient distance from the edges so that it could not be seen from ground level on Summit Avenue. The three companies each made a presentation to the Committee showing detailed design, what grants were available and for how much, financing options, warranties, and payback schedule.
IPS, our final choice, presented a plan that required no up-front financing. The final agreement involved a complicated contract since their financing package was arranged to recover the federal tax incentive (of no use to us as a nonprofit). We enlisted the services of an attorney to review the IPS contracts. Once the financing is paid off (expected to be in seven years), our electricity costs are expected to decrease another 40%.
Our Earthwise team applied in 2012 to Xcel Energy for receiving grants. Without grants, the project wouldn't be possible. Because of the popularity of the grant program, Xcel wasn't able to fund our project in 2013, but we received approval for 2014.
Because the church is located on Summit Avenue in a historic district, the Heritage Preservation Commission of the City of Saint Paul must approve projects that affect the appearance of structures. The contractor and an Earthwise member did a mock-up of the solar panels and photographed the building from street level to show that the solar panels would not be visible to pedestrians and motorists on Summit Avenue. Several church members and our Lead Minister joined the contractor at the Commission's hearing on July 24, 2014. The Commission's staff had studied the issue and recommended approval. The Commission complimented the church and contractor for being well-prepared and for designing a project that was a good fit for the historic district. The Commission gave its approval. Construction started two weeks later.
We became an energy producer on October 2, 2014. We are currently collecting data to determine how much energy is produced by the solar panels, how much money is being saved, and how many tons of carbon dioxide emissions are being eliminated. You can monitor our energy production by clicking here.
The Earthwise Committee, St. Paul's United Church of Christ, November 2014