Saving money wasn’t the main motivation forto go solar.
“The church has done a lot in the area of what we call ‘creation care,'” Duane Ediger, a member of the church in Tucson, Arizona, who planned and installed its 10-kilowatt rooftop solar installation, told me. He’s referring to environmental stewardship inspired by religious conviction.
Creation care was the church’s motivation for grading its campus to better capture runoff from monsoon-season thunderstorms, ending its natural gas service, switching to all-electric appliances, and installing solar panels and battery backup.
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Despite the motivation being more ethical than financial, the system didn’t need to lose money. But thanks to local policies, the cost of the system wouldn’t make sense for the church without some creative problem solving.
Shalom Mennonite Fellowship’s utility charges a renewable energy tariff that added about $40 to the church’s monthly bill after it added solar, Ediger said. That’s about $12,000 over 25 years.
Policies that limit the incentives for going solar are increasingly common, like this year’s changes to net metering in California. At the same time electricity is getting more expensive.
It’s happening in the context of climate change, avoiding the worst effects of which requires a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Even as we need more carbon-free electricity, severe weather exacerbated by climate change is making the grid.
One possible solution is solar panels and battery storage that can operate with and without the grid. It’s one variation of what’s called a microgrid and it’s gaining traction at houses of worship like this one, which are ideally situated to support communities during disasters.
How Shalom Mennonite got its microgrid
To account for the utility’s additional charge for going solar, the church took an unusual step.
Besides the church building, the congregation owns a few other buildings on the same lot. By combining the electrical service of two buildings and serving them with one solar array, the church could power them both with solar panels while only paying one increased renewable energy tariff and consuming more of the power onsite. That would mean the system would just pay for itself through energy savings over the course of its 25-year lifespan, Ediger said.
The church’s microgrid consists of 10 kilowatts’ worth of solar panels and a Tesla Powerwall battery, which provides 13.5 kilowatt-hours of storage — enough backup power to run a few parts of the church building if the power goes down. The system also powers a house next door to the church.
“We cover directly about two-thirds of our usage between the two buildings,” Ediger said.
The solar panels could have produced more electricity — and more savings — if they’d been oriented south, but they were installed facing southeast and southwest. That boosts production during the morning (which offsets their Sunday morning usage) and afternoon (which adds clean energy to the grid during Tucson’s peak demand).
While backup power wasn’t a major goal for the microgrid at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, it’s been a small bonus. The solar and storage kept some of the lights on at the church where volunteers were staying when the power went out, Ediger said.
How microgrids can pave a path to an uncertain energy future
The grid as it’s operated for much of its history has consisted of large, central power plants that send electricity over long distances to the customers who use it. That’s starting to change.
That’s because we have more technologies that can produce power closer to users, said, professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he leads the Center for Microgrid Research. “These technologies are enabling microgrids,” he said.
Those closer-to-home power generators might be a traditional standby generator, solar panels and battery storage or small-scale wind generation. When the grid goes down, these distributed energy generators can keep power flowing to the microgrid, which has temporarily disconnected from the larger grid. This could happen on the scale of a neighborhood, a hospital complex or a single house, and it’s likely to get more common.
“In 10 to 20 years, you will stop thinking about it,” Kabalan said. “Just like when you buy a home, there has to be a refrigerator, there has to be an oven,” and there will have to be backup power and likely solar panels.
The US military has. The Center for Microgrid Research has received to advance that goal. It would make bases more resilient as climate-change fueled weather gets less predictable and more destructive.
In 2022, the US hadthat each cost more than $1 billion (tied for third most in a year), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The more than doubled between 2013 and 2021, driven largely by severe weather, data from the US Energy Information Administration shows. Severe weather and power outages can be a deadly combination, as the showed.
Despite the growing need for microgrids, by some accounts, state policy lacks incentives to get them widely deployed., a microgrid advocacy organization, (PDF) for their microgrid deployment and policy, awarding four states Bs, but assessing the rest lower. No state got an A.
How microgrids can provide resiliency for communities
As climate change makes weather more extreme and some natural disasters more intense, it’s not just military bases that will need greater resilience.
In California, about 10 houses of worship have intentionally set themselves up to be resilience centers in their neighborhoods, said, the executive director of the California chapter of Interfaith Power & Light, a nonprofit working with houses of worship to respond to climate change. Many more are interested in using their buildings in the same way, she said.
A resilience center can take several shapes, but they all provide safety and services to people affected by extreme weather, natural disasters or other dangerous events. People might drop in to grab some food and charge a phone, be directed to temporary shelter or stay for a couple of days to ride out a disaster or its aftermath.
Stephenson said solar panels, battery storage and air filtration (to deal with smoke from California’s wildfires) are key features to the resilience centers established in churches affiliated with California Interfaith Power & Light. Electricity and clean air can be lifesaving resources, especially if you can no longer get them at home.
Churches, synagogues and mosques are natural fits to provide those services.
“Houses of worship are ubiquitous in this country. Almost every neighborhood has one at least,” Stephenson said. “And generally, they are welcoming places for the community.”
These spaces often host community meetings, soup kitchens or other events that mean community members might already be comfortable coming into the space.
Cooling and warming stations, which are resilience centers of a sort, since they provide temporary relief during extreme weather, are nothing new, nor is situating them in spaces the public frequently visits: Religious facilities, public libraries and neighborhood organization buildings are common choices.
Acting as a resilience center is more than just throwing your doors open during a crisis. It often involves working with local governments and disaster response organizations like the Red Cross to make sure resources are where people most need them.
Making microgrid finances work
While solar panels often save houses of worship money on their utility costs in the long run, installing the batteries and other equipment needed to act as a resilience center needs nonfinancial motivation, Stephenson said. At least for now.
“We’re trying to find ways to help congregations finance batteries as it’s becoming more popular and batteries are getting more affordable,” she said.
Charitable donations are one funding mechanism. Another is, which opens the benefits of tax credits to organizations that don’t pay taxes. Under the provision, introduced by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, organizations will receive a direct payment, instead of being compensated through avoided taxes. Exactly how tax exempt organizations will apply for and receive these payments hasn’t yet been established.
When it’s sorted, it could mean more resilience built into neighborhoods.
Whether it’s at a church, mosque, synagogue, temple, library or home, distributed resources like solar panels and battery storage are going to play an important role in meeting the challenges of a changing climate and the energy transition needed to avoid its worst effects.