News

Iowa’s Catholic churches go solar to heed pope’s call on climate change


August 21, 2017
By Kevin Hardy
Des Moines Register

NORWALK, Ia. ― As the sun beat down on a recent Saturday afternoon, the mammoth air conditioning system at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church offered welcome relief to parishioners trickling in for evening Mass. 

While churchgoers filled the pews and hymns filled the sanctuary, 206 solar panels overhead converted the sun's energy into power for lights, the public address system and the crisp cold air. 

"We're running on solar right now," said the Rev. John Ludwig. 

The church is the first in the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines to roll out a large scale solar energy initiative. But Catholic leaders say it won't be the last. 

Bishop Robert Pates credits grassroots work at the Norwalk church for bringing about the solar project, but inspiration came from the world's highest-ranking Catholic. Iowa Catholics, inspired by Pope Francis' call for the faithful to actively combat the harmful effects of global climate change, are looking for ways to conserve energy and transition to renewable forms of energy.

"It's exciting to me because I feel like they’re sort of walking the walk," said the Rev. Susan Hendershot Guy, executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, a religious group aimed at responding to global warming. "They're not just saying isn’t this great. They’re really advocating for congregations to do something."

But the Catholic church isn't alone. Across the state, leaders from various faith traditions ―  who often worship in vast, aging and inefficient facilities ― are pushing forward with energy efficiency efforts and solar installations, Guy said. 

In Kalona, a Mennonite congregation invested in a community solar effort. A Soto Zen Buddhist temple in Dorchester now gets about half its energy from its solar array. And a Methodist church in Ames will host a solar workshop later this month.

"I think it is getting out to all types of denominations, congregations, faith traditions really across the conservative-liberal spectrum," Guy said. "It’s a really practical way to live out that message of how we care for the world."

In Norwalk, St. John the Apostle partnered with a parishioner's for-profit company, which unlike untaxed churches, is able to take advantage of lucrative renewable energy tax credits. The company secured investors to pay for the upfront costs. It sells the energy generated back to the church at a rate lower than what the church would pay for power on the wider grid. Ludwig says the deal will save the church $2,000 per year in energy costs.

"We got the deal of the century," Ludwig said, "because we didn't have to pay anything for it."

'We cannot abandon what God has given us'

In June 2015, Pope Francis made international news after releasing his environmental encyclical Laudato Si, which translates to "Our Common Home." While citing the messages of previous popes, Francis captured the world's attention by criticizing climate change deniers and calling for sweeping changes in political action and personal behaviors to reduce emissions and better care for the environment.

"These situations have caused sister Earth, along with all the abandoned of our world, to cry out, pleading that we take another course," he wrote. "Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last 200 years."

In May, Francis gave President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a "hoax," a copy of his 192-page document during the president's Vatican visit.

Pates says the Bible's Book of Genesis demands that Christians act as stewards of the Earth and "provide for those who come after us."

"We cannot put our head in the sand and say we're going to continue to have children but snuff out their existence," he said. "That is why the pope is so concerned."

While environmental activists often are viewed as a bloc within the political left, Pates said the church's embrace of the issue isn't meant to make a political stance. Yet, it does highlight how the church's bearings on abortion, immigration, poverty and the environment often split between platforms of the partisan left and right

"The pope regards this as a moral issue, not a political issue, especially given the consensus of scientists," he said. "The timeline involved is very serious. We can do something. We can change it."

Pates says the diocese won't force parishes to make changes, but it is encouraging them to explore solar installations and other green initiatives. He also hopes a soon-to-form task force will spur meaningful change for two of the area's largest Catholic institutions: Dowling Catholic High School and Mercy Medical Center.

Though Catholics, and all Christians, hold faith in the prospect of life after death, Pates said that outlook can't be used as a crutch to forsake the planet's air, land and waters. 

"In the meanwhile, this is what we are entrusted with," he said. "So we cannot abandon what God has given us."

'Our kids deserve to have clean air and sunshine'

After years in the construction business, Terry Dvorak suddenly got very interested in renewable energy in 2010 while traveling around heavily polluted cities in China.

In Shanghai, it felt like he was inhaling paint fumes, he said.

"That kind of started it for me," he said. "After that trip, it solidified that I needed to do something."

He thought of the countless children who live their whole lives without escaping that tainted environment. 

"Our kids deserve to have clean air and sunshine," he said, "and so does the rest of the world."

He started Red Lion Renewables, a solar development firm that installs solar arrays on commercial and residential property as well as school, church and city buildings. 

A member of St. John the Apostle in Norwalk, Dvorak approached church leaders about a possible church solar project. After securing approval from the parish priest and the bishop, Dvorak and his investors put up about $200,000 to purchase 206 panels. He said the parish spent only about $100 out of pocket for a legal review of its agreement with Red Lion. 

The black panels, each about 40 inches by 70 inches, sit on sloped and flat spans of the church building's southern-facing roof.  

Solar delivers the biggest economic benefit to homeowners and businesses who can offset a portion of the up-front investment with tax credits, Dvorak says. But that can leave school districts, churches and local governments will little incentive to go green. 

By using a third-party company, investors can earn a healthy return, while the not-for-profit entity realizes immediate energy savings.

The 69 kW array in Norwalk is expected to produce enough energy to power about 10 typical homes, Dvorak says, while eliminating about 3 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere.

Through a power-purchase agreement, the church purchases back the electricity the panels generate at a rate lower than what MidAmerican Energy would charge, Dvorak says. The estimated $2,000 annual savings will allow the church to invest more in its charitable work with groups like Habitat for Humanity or Meals from the Heartland.

"Now they can indirectly save money right off the bat on their energy bills," he said, "use their limited budgets for their own mission and help the environment in the process."

'The church definitely needs to lead the community'

About a decade ago, church leaders started worrying about the aging heating system at First Lutheran Church in Decorah. The congregation spent about $22,000 each year to keep the lights, air conditioning and heat running in its 150-year-old building. 

"We had a discussion that the money could be better spent on ministry, and the church could set a better example with climate change," said Larry Grimstad, a member of the congregation's "green team."

After an energy audit, the church in 2010 added new insulation and invested hundreds of thousands into a new, efficient HVAC system.

Then, in 2014, the church unveiled a $35,000 solar installation. The 26 panels cover much of the southern portion of the roof, where energy efficiency is most ideal.

Most recently, in 2015, First Lutheran started changing out lights to more efficient LED fixtures.

The combined efforts reduced the church's energy costs by 38 percent and reduced its carbon footprint by 42 percent, he said. Now, annual utility bills run about $13,000.

But Grimstad said the church wants to reduce its carbon emissions even more. It's exploring a solar canopy project for the parking lot, and Grimstad says he's interested in a community geothermal project.

"The real goal has to be zero," he said. "So that’s where we’re going."

While churches can reap economic benefits from energy efficiency efforts, Grimstad said faith groups have a moral calling to tackle the global threat of climate change.

"We have a responsibility to do this," he said. "The church definitely needs to lead the community to do this type of thing."

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/2017/08/21/iowa-churches-increasingly-see-green-energy-moral-issue/536874001/