April 13, 2018

Solar panels offer unique model of stewardship

A statue of the Virgin Mary stands just below newly installed solar panels at St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington on March 15. Pope Francis has urged the world to use the Earth’s resources responsibly. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

Cliff Burk, left, the head of the St. John the Apostle Parish solar project, stands with Father Daniel Mahan, the parish’s pastor, and Ron Pendill, the parish’s finance commissioner, outside the parish’s church on March 15. Behind them, newly installed solar panels are arranged on the roof of St. John’s Parish Life Center. (Photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

BLOOMINGTON—There was still a winter chill in the air, but the sun shone brightly upon the hilltop campus of St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington on March 15. A sunny day brings more than good moods at this church—sunshine also brings electricity.

“The blessing of God’s creation [is] that the sun shines on this beautiful facility on top of this beautiful hill,” explained the parish’s pastor, Father Daniel Mahan, “and that with panels covering just part of the building, we’re able to take care of most of our electrical needs.”

St. John the Apostle Parish just installed a photovoltaic system, more commonly known as a system of solar panels, which captures the sun’s rays and converts the energy into electricity to power its campus. As far as records show, this is the first system to be installed at a parish in the archdiocese. The members of the parish also believe that theirs is the largest solar array to be installed by any faith-based community in Indiana.

“We are the seventh church in Bloomington to have solar panels, and we are by far the largest in the city and the county. [It is a] 112-kilowatt system,” said Cliff Burk, a parishioner and head of the solar project.

On a bright day, the 320 gleaming blue panels arranged on the southeastern roof of the Parish Life Center supply more than enough electricity for that building, the church, the rectory and all of the lights in the parking lot. On cloudy days and at night, the system automatically fills the deficit with incoming power from the local supplier, Duke Energy.

“We’re going to need a year’s worth of solar production data to see what we’re saving,” explained Burk. His best estimate is that the parish energy bill will be reduced by more than 85 percent.

Burk, a retired mechanical engineer, knew what the parish needed to consider before undertaking the project. He had already installed solar panels on his own home, and was active in a non-profit project that supplies information about solar energy called the Solar Indiana Renewal Energy Network, or SIREN.

“We took some time to figure out what our energy consumption here was, and I translated that into a system size,” said Burk.

The finance committee crunched the numbers and soon found that the system was within the parish’s existing financial reserve. The panels, which have a performance warranty of 25 years, will likely pay for themselves within 10 years.

“Father Mahan actually mentioned solar panels to me back in the spring of 2016, [that] we could use our money to go solar,” said Ron Pendill, the parish’s finance commissioner.

The finance committee met with solar representatives to kick off the project in October 2016.

“It made good sense and seemed to be good stewardship of our resources to pay our electrical bill in advance,” said Father Mahan. “What we thought would be the bill for 10 years will cover our electrical bill for the next 30 years.”

“In a sense, this is a gift to the next generation,” Burk added.

St. John the Apostle Parish completed the installation of the photovoltaic system in mid-December 2017, and parish leaders believe that they have already seen more than just financial benefits.

According to a monitor on the system, in three months the parish’s decreased use of fossil fuel-generated energy saved close to 13 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) from being released into the atmosphere. The United States Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations track CO2, a greenhouse gas, for its role in climate change.

“The Lord made us stewards of his creation to take good care of, to not deplete, to use responsibly,” said Father Mahan.

Pope Francis has made this stewardship of the Earth one of the priorities of his papacy. In his 2015 encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” the Holy Father insisted that care for creation is of utmost importance to create a just society. The pope explained that when humanity uses the resources of the Earth irresponsibly and recklessly the first to suffer are the poor and vulnerable.

“I thought [St. John’s solar energy installation] is a perfect example of what Pope Francis is calling us to do, [to] be more responsible with our resources—financial resources from our parishioners, but also the resources that the environment gives us to survive,” explained Eric Atkins, director of Management Services for the archdiocese. He helped the parish analyze the building in preparation for the project.

Atkins encouraged other parishes in central and southern Indiana to consider converting to solar energy, but at the same time cautioned that it might not be the right solution for every community. Some faith community campuses simply do not have the space or a location where solar panels can collect sunlight, and thus will not be able to reap the financial and environmental benefits.

“I think a parish needs to do a very detailed analysis. Many of the parishes have [a] tremendous amount of shading from existing buildings or from trees on the campus,” Atkins said.

“A parish [also] needs to look at it from a standpoint of, what are the existing electric rates that you are paying in your community,” he explained, “what it is going to cost to install this, and is this a good return on the investment.”

Atkins encouraged parishes that may be considering solar energy to contact his office. Burk also offered his own expertise to assist other communities, but with one caveat.

“I want to stay retired,” he explained with a laugh.

The completion of the solar panels project was the bright focal point of several years of energy-reduction for St. John the Apostle Parish. In addition to the large installation, the parish also upgraded their heating and cooling systems with more efficient models and replaced their lightbulbs with energy-efficient LEDs.

Father Mahan explained that even small steps to respect creation make a big difference, especially when the object is to glorify the Creator.

“Anytime we do anything to care for the Earth, it’s a good thing,” he explained. “If we’re picking up litter, if we’re preventing erosion, or if we’re harnessing the rays from the sun, those are good things.

“They are great things when they point others to consider the goodness of God and the beauty of all his creation.”

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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