By David Karas | Correspondent
Parish business manager Joe Noble walked along a row of solar panels on the grounds of St. Mary Parish, Colts Neck, on a warm, sunny afternoon.
“On days like today, it is really humming,” he said.
The parish is one of two with active solar farms, and will soon be joined by four currently under contract and 10 others, including two schools, actively working towards projects of their own.
The communities have explored solar options both for roof-mounted panels and ground solar farms, depending upon available land and resources. Panels are situated based on the direction of the sun, and state regulations dictate the number of panels through calculating average energy usage of each parish.
And while solar initiatives can both cut electric bills and protect the environment, many might ask how much such a project costs. The answer might come as a shock.
“It has cost St. Mary Parish, St. Mary parishioners, and the Diocese of Trenton nothing,” said Noble. “We look at it as a complete win-win.”
Essentially, third-party companies buy, install and maintain solar panels on parish properties and work with power utilities to collect energy generated from the panels. Contractors create custom plans that accommodate their needs and land resources. In return, parishes must commit to a 15-year Power Purchase Agreement at a price that equates to roughly one-half of their current energy costs.
On sunny days a parish might generate more electricity than it needs, in which case the excess solar energy would be transferred to the local power utility. But on cloudy days, power is seamlessly provided through a transfer back from the power company. The lights don’t even flicker when switching from solar to utility power, Noble says.
John Isaac, assistant to the director in the diocesan Office of Property and Construction, has worked with a team to promote solar initiatives throughout the diocese. The original impetus, he said, came after the federal government began to offer grants for solar projects that reimbursed companies for about a third of their costs. That same grant has since become a tax credit, but the encouragement for these companies is still there, he said.
“I think it’s a tremendous initiative, especially during these difficult economic times,” he said. “You can save tangible money through energy enhancement, using the gift of the sun from our Lord.”
And the tangible savings are nothing to sneeze at. Just considering the two parishes with solar farms and the four others under contract, Isaac said, there is a collective estimated annual savings of $69,250, for a total of $1,038,750 over the 15-year contract period.
Noble’s parish was the first to launch a solar initiative, and is now producing energy equivalent to nearly 100 percent of the energy the parish uses.
Aside from fiscal responsibility, going solar can also have a positive impact on the environment.
“Our system reduces CO2 emissions…equivalent to removing eight cars from the road annually, or 14 homes,” said John Dawkins, construction manager for Assumption Parish, New Egypt, which also has a solar farm in operation. “It is equivalent to planting 1,473 trees.”
Father Joseph Farrell, Assumption pastor, said that solar energy was a natural addition to his parish. “It’s a brand new church,” he said. “When we built the church, the possibility of solar panels was not explored with us.”
Dawkins said the solar farm now generates roughly 99-percent of the energy the parish utilizes.
Conventual Franciscan Father David Stachurski, pastor of Resurrection Parish, Delran, said that the cost savings generated by solar programs attracted him to the idea. His parish is currently under contract for a solar farm of its own.
“It’s important because we are struggling financially,” he said. “It is going to bring a significant reduction in energy costs for us.” At the same time, he said the benefits to the environment were also a draw.
“Being a Franciscan, I am certainly sensitive to ecology,” he said, “so that was certainly another one of the motivating factors.”
Deacon John Bonner, of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, West Trenton, said that his parish is also planning a ground-mount solar farm that will be positioned on a field on the parish property. He said that the cost-savings is something the parish is looking forward to realizing.
Isaac has been excited about the growth of solar projects throughout the diocese, acknowledging that clean energy is part of Christian stewardship of the earth, and is a responsible endeavor.
Currently, 10 local communities are in the process of negotiating contracts for solar initiatives, including St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold; St. Joseph Parish, Toms River; Visitation Parish, Brick Town; St. Aloysius Parish, Jackson; St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville; St. Mary Parish, Barnegat; Our Lady of the Angels Parish, Trenton; Mother Teresa Regional School, Atlantic Highlands; Holy Cross High School, Delran; and All Saints Regional School, Manahawkin.
And above that, he said at least 15 others have approached him with interest.
Aside from solar efforts, the diocesan Chancery, Lawrenceville, and a handful of other parishes have found their own ways to save some cash on energy bills. Through entering into an electric supply contract, the diocese works with a third party broker that hunts for lower rates. The no-cost service has yielded significant savings for the pastoral center alone.
“We are saving about $34,000 over two years for doing nothing,” he said. “We have been advocating this around our diocese.”[[In-content Ad]]