Even as temperatures in Minneapolis reach historic lows this week, the solar panels on top of Mayflower Church United Church of Christ continue to generate electricity. The Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries, associate minister at Mayflower UCC, thinks it's pretty amazing that her church's brand new solar panels can operate under these extreme weather conditions, and looks forward to what they'll be capable of during the warm summer months when there is no shortage of sunshine.
"If part of a panel as small as the size of a quarter is exposed, it will heat up, melt the snow and convert the sunlight into energy," said Goldthwaite Fries. "Even in 40-below temperatures and with snow on the roof, they are generating electricity now."
After five years of planning and fundraising, the solar panels on top of Mayflower UCC were installed over four weeks in November 2013 and almost immediately started turning sunlight into power. The church's 204 solar panels comprise the largest array on a religious building in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, an accomplishment Goldthwaite Fries and her congregation are proud of. The panels will eventually produce 35 percent of the church building's electricity, and they represent an additional 15-percent reduction in the building's total carbon emissions.
Mayflower UCC became an Earthwise Congregation through the Minnesota Conference of the UCC in 2009, affirming its stance as an environmentally conscious church. In 2012, the congregation launched its Seeds of Hope campaign, with the intention to become carbon neutral through a three-phase process by 2030. The solar panel installation is a large part of the campaign's first phase. Combined with other efforts, such as the revamping of its lighting and heating systems, Mayflower UCC has so far reduced its total carbon emissions by 60 percent. Much of the Seeds of Hope campaign has been paid for through grants and incentives from state and local governments and utility company rebates. For example, after tax credits, energy credits, and rebates from the solar panel manufacturer, the $300,000 project cost Mayflower UCC just $30,000.
"When people hear about this Earthwise movement, many think, 'This isn't for our church' because they think they can't afford to be more energy conscious or that it's too late. There is a lot of discouragement," Goldthwaite Fries said. "But we want to send the message that it's possible, and with incentives and partnerships, it brings it into the realm of what many churches could do."
The majority of Mayflower UCC's solar panels are located on the top of the two-story education building and aren't clearly visible to passersby. But the church purposely placed a section of panels on the front of the building in plain view. The structural steel solar canopy, designed by one of Mayflower UCC's members, is meant to be a symbol of hope, Goldthwaite Fries said, that sends the message that communities can work together to turn the effects of climate change around.
"A church can't really accomplish this by itself," she said. "It's symbolic of the message that we all have to work together to make this happen, otherwise we are all just chipping away at our own corner."