Solar panels reduce energy costs and carbon footprint for California UCC
Written by Emily Mullins
November 6, 2012

A view of the solar panels from the church's courtyard.

When the suggestion of a solar panel installation project first came up at First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, the Rev. David Stabenfeldt was asked a lot of questions. Do these things really work? Are we really going to make our money back? Is this a good investment? A year later, members of the Bakersfield, Calif. congregation say it was one of the best things the church has ever done.

"The naysayers are now congratulating us," Stabenfeldt said.

Stabenfeldt and a few environmentally savvy members had been aware of the benefits of solar power, but the idea became more feasible when California utility companies began offering rebate incentives. First Congregational formed a committee, aptly called The Solar Panel, and began compiling research and crunching numbers to make sure the investment made both ecological and financial sense. With the knowledge that the panels would not only reduce the congregation's carbon footprint, but also produce an energy cost savings of $20,000-$30,000 a year, Stabenfeldt and about three-fourths of the congregation was confident that pursuing the project was the right choice.

"This was a legacy investment, not only for this generation, but for future generations at First Congregational," Stabenfeldt said. "Our church is very aware of the need to reduce our carbon footprint, which is one of the reasons there was such a high buy-in."

One of the main challenges was to make sure the church members were knowledgable about solar energy and its pros and cons. The Solar Panel offered educational sessions, conducted surveys and handed out literature to ensure everyone was informed. The next challenge was making sure members were willing to make a financial investment for the project that would cost about $200,000. The congregation raised $80,000 and received $50,000 in rebates from its utility company. The other $70,000 came from a loan from the UCC Cornerstone Fund, a financial ministry that offers loans to UCC churches and members for improvements and repairs, which the congregation will be able to repay in less than five years.

Workers installing the solar panels.

"Once we got the green light, and raised enough money and all that, everything now has been a blessing," Stabenfeldt said.

The energy cost savings have already been tremendous. The panels on the roof cover a 165'x30' area and produce 240-260 kilowatts of energy on an average summer day. To put it in perspective, last year's energy costs decreased from $25,000 to $7,500, with the $18,000 in cost savings going to repay the Cornerstone Fund loan. To save even more energy dollars, First Congregational has its thermostats adjusted automatically through a computer program, did major repairs on its air conditioning unit, has added additional insulation to older parts of the building, and is generally being more observant about turning things off.

Because of this work, First Congregational UCC has been nominated for an "Energy Oscar" by California Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based organization that promotes energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. But energy conservation isn't the only issue the congregation is concerned with. They are also active in water conservation, and recently replaced all of their landscaping with low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plant species that require less water to survive.  While these changes have obvious financial and environmental benefits, Stabenfeldt says one of the best benefits is the message these actions send into the community and to the church's members, guests and visitors, some of who have been inspired to do things like install solar panels or tank-less water heaters in their homes.

"Every congregation needs to be asking how they can reduce their dependence on fossil fuels," Stabenfeldt said. "Just by asking the questions to their members, congregations can have a multiplying effect on what we can all do to the help the environment."

The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.

With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.

For more information, visit the Mission 4/1 Earth website.

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