Written by Gregg Brekke
Shining its little light for more than 171 years, St. Paul's UCC in Colgate, Wis., now has 50 more reasons for its sunny disposition.
A 70-foot bank of 50 solar panels capable of producing 9,500 watts – enough to power 95 100-watt bulbs – has been in place for the past three months.
"Sunny days produce more energy, but even on a cloudy day, we'll generate several hundred watts," said the Rev. John Helt, project catalyst and pastor at St. Paul's for the past 2½ years.
Installed this past summer to reduce both the church's carbon footprint and its electric bills, the panels were commissioned in September. The church received grants from We Energies ($29,000) and Focus Energy ($17,000), and St. Paul's raised the remaining $16,000 via a church endowment fund.
Helt's initial dream – to build a wind turbine – was quashed after electric company officials advised that the hilly terrain would hinder wind generation. But, they suggested, the area was ideal for solar power.
Helt then had to secure local buy-in for project.
"This is a pretty conservative farming community that believes in stewardship for the earth from an agricultural point of view," said Helt, "but they don't necessarily think global warming is a problem – and if it is, (they think) it's not something we can do anything about it."
Added Helt with a laugh, "Their grasp of 'green' is a little different from mine."
Forming a "green team" was too progressive for his community, Helt reasoned, so he did the next best thing: advocated for a sustainable, solar project. "I just couldn't do it grass-roots like I wanted to," he said.
The next object was the largest logistically: Between the site of the proposed panels and the church lies a cemetery. The cable connecting the panels to the church would have to go around the gravesites or under them.
"The contractor gave us a satellite blow-up of a 2-acre undeveloped area on top of the hill," he said. "He drew one line through the cemetery, and another around it." Going the indirect route would take triple the amount of cable and would have involved much more digging, said Helt. Consensus was that running the cables 13 feet beneath the cemetery was the best option.
That still left Helt with one more hurdle.
"We have a three-person cemetery association, and all three are very conservative in every way you could imagine," Helt said. "The challenge was to get them to not resist the idea publicly."
But soon, everyone – Helt, the St. Paul's congregation, the construction company and the cemetery association – agreed that the project could be executed without disrupting gravesites.
"They dug five or six big holes atop the rocky hill for footings, and established array of panels," said Helt. "You can't see it from church, it's down the hill. So, if you step up into the cemetery, which is halfway up the hill, you can see corner of the panels sticking up."
Any unused power generated can be sold back to We Energies, said Helt, adding that although there is no method in place yet to measure savings, those funds will be redirected into a general maintenance fund.
In addition, an Eagle Scout has taken on the task of landscaping the area to enhance the look of the panels and, to some degree, protect them. "We plan to let the natural grasses, wildflowers and trees grow around it, and have a walking path so people can access it either from the road or the cemetery," said Helt.
Located 45 minutes from downtown Milwaukee, St. Paul's is the oldest former Evangelical Synod church of the UCC in Wisconsin. Founded in 1840 as a Protestant church in a largely Roman Catholic area, the first building was a log structure. The present facility was built in 1880. It was most recently updated in 2004 with offices, classrooms and accessibility features.
At age 60, Helt sounds prepared for the next hurdle. And the one after that. As well as the one that follows it.
"I'm loving every minute of it," he said. "This is my ministry swan song, and I do not intend to retire unless I absolutely have to."