Catholics in Virginia finance solar energy for churches and schools

woman praying with bible, hipster hat

Doing change is much more important than just talking change: seven Catholic community groups in Virginia support renewables through investing in solar energy.

While Church may be cancelled in some parishes until further notice, Catholics aren’t feeling set adrift from the problem at the seven Catholic communities in Richmond, Virginia. The churches there are building and investing in solar energy to power the communities’ churches and schools, creating 1.6 million kW hours of clean electricity each year for decades while saving the churches more than $2 million in energy operating costs.

The solar power projects are being developed in partnership with Catholic Energies, part of the D.C.-based nonprofit Catholic Climate Covenant, which helps guide American churches and their response to climate change or “care for creation,” as they express it. Catholic Energies was able to obtain the total capital costs of the seven projects from a single investor source.

Solar energy into the collection basket

“Nearly $3 million in total installation capital costs were secured by Catholic Energies on behalf of the Diocese and its parishes,” said Dan Last, Catholic Energies Program Manager. “This is one of our largest collections of projects to date.”

solar energy farm, Catholic

In July, a 421-kilowatt solar system was installed at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, in Falls Church, Virginia. The rooftop solar array is projected to offset almost 90% of the parish’s energy use and save it upwards of $1.3 million over 25 years. (Catholic Energies)

“At St. Pius X it was an easy decision for us to go solar; not only do we save money, but we help answer the call from Pope Francis to care for creation,” said Father Nixon Negparanon of St. Pius X Church in Norfolk, one of the seven projects.

“The children who will be sitting under the solar panels on our school roof are the ones that are going to be living with the choices that we make today.  As a faith community, we witness our commitment to good stewardship of the earth when we take tangible steps to reduce our carbon footprint, both here on the St. Pius X campus, and in each of our households.”

I went to a Catholic high-school and I remember us rallying together to buy some rainforest land to stop deforestation. Certainly communities of schools and faith-based groups can band collective climate aspirations together to make it happen.

Consider the energy required to power US buildings is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gases in the US, and these projects will help reduce those emissions. The Richmond Diocese projects are expected to offset more than 45,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas over 25 years (this is equivalent to some 100 million miles driven by an average passenger car.)

The list of solar energy projects include  Church of St Therese, Chesapeake: 100kW; Roanoke Catholic School, Roanoke, 61kW; Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, Richmond, 108kW; Diocese of Richmond Pastoral Center, Richmond, 245kW; Sacred Heart Church, Danville, 230 kW; St. Pius X Church, Norfolk, 316kW; Church of the Holy Family, Virginia Beach, 253kW.

Hearing the cry of the earth

“In a warming world, it is critical that we hear “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor,” as Pope Francis has urged. These parishes are showing us the way,” said Dan Misleh, executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant.

Parishes always have the option to pay upfront or finance their solar projects. However, a third-party financing model for nonprofits continues to grow in popularity in Virginia, especially after the recent passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which seeks for the state to move toward 100% renewable energy.

Through a “Power Purchase Agreement” (PPA,) the churches pay no upfront costs for solar projects. Instead, Catholic Energies secures third-party investors who will pay for the entire solar project. In return, the investor receives tax credits, plus regular payments from the church for the solar-generated power.

The price the Catholic institution pays for the solar power is generally a discounted rate compared to their current utility power rate, which allows them to save on operating costs each month, year over year. The institution has options throughout the PPA to purchase the solar panel system outright. Parishes can also complete LED lighting retrofits to save energy and costs though the PPA. Most of the Diocese of Richmond projects were completed through a PPA and are also completing LED retrofits.

“It’s probably the best time ever in the history of the state of Virginia to make an investment in solar,” said Page Gravely, head of client services at Catholic Energies.

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