TransformSustainability agendaClean energy › I did it: Installed solar panels

Finding faith in renewables

Installing a solar car port at the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland was more than an act of faith. It arose out of an impulse to act for a congregation that had broken ground on a host of sustainability projects.

Heaven sent<br />A solar car port and electric car charging station at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland. Image: Bold Alternatives. Fill 'er up<br />Electric car charging station connected to First Unitarian Church of Cleveland's 92 Kw solar car port. Image: GCBL.Pondering permaculture<br />First Unitarian Church of Cleveland's permaculture garden was put in by its congregants.

A canopy over First Unitarian's parking lot provides shade over 38 spaces, and 100 kilowatts of clean energy from a solar array purchased by Rob Martens, a congregant who also owns the solar energy business, Bold Alternatives.

The church—with its impressive white steeple piercing the sky above the grassy ballfields of Shaker Heights Middle School and the RTA Green Line—agreed to purchase power from the array for ten years, at a penny per kilowatt/hour less than what they previously paid FirstEnergy.

Known as a power purchase agreement, the deal involves Mr. Martens' holding company, Solar Action, LLC which financed the equipment. He hopes to recoup his investment by trading the project’s renewable energy credits, a commodity that can be sold to utilities as a way of meeting Ohio’s Advanced Energy Portfolio Standard. Solar Action also qualified for federal Investment Tax Credits which the church as a non-profit would not otherwise get. In addition to pulling in a monthly revenue stream—the church spent $14,000 in 2012 on electricity—Solar Action has an option at the end of ten years to sell or give (as a charitable donation) the solar car port to the church.

This is the fourth deal Solar Action has closed with non-profit organizations—one in North Ridgeville, two for Baldwin-Wallace College—and a municipal government in the city of Valley View.

"It's a growing way for a number of entities to afford renewables," Bold Alternatives Business Development and Marketing Manager, Kimberly Dyer says of the third-party agreements.

First Unitarian's array started producing renewable energy in July, 2012 when it was connected, through a meter, to the grid, which is still the church’s main source of power. In certain months, such as May or September, the array might supply all of the church’s power, Dyer says. If it produces more power than the building uses, the meter would literally spin backwards, and the utility would then issue a credit to the church. Utilities operating in Ohio were required to follow this practice, known as net metering, after the General Assembly adopted new energy policy in 2008.

Through what's called an interconnection agreement, the regulated utility also establishes details such as the size of the system. In this case, FirstEnergy limited the size of the system to 93 Kw/h.

"It's because of the capacity of the lines," Dyer explains. "Shaker's is not most modern community."

The solar panels are actually performing better than expected, says Dyer.

It may seem like a small point—the limitations of the grid to accept new, "distributed" sources of power—but it is on the minds of solar installers and their customers.

"PUCO and the utilities have an obligation to maintain the infrastructure, and they fail to do so in many areas," says Dyer. "There has to be a way to handle all of these new sources (of self-generated power)."

The panels are expected to offset 80% of the church's electricity use. Tom Gibson, a congregant involved in the church’s other green initiatives, would have preferred that the array supply all of the building’s power.

"Initially, it was going to be bigger," he says. "In the summer we (would be) a net supplier to the grid, and, in winter, a net consumer. But, we're not getting our full electric needs met."

Still, Gibson appreciates Martens' efforts and personal expense, including an electric car charging station connected to the solar panels which Martens uses to charge his vehicle on Sundays. The congregation rallied around it, too. For example, former Nature Center at Shaker Lakes director and congregant, Nancy King-Smith, pursued a $24,000 grant from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to purchase four, 650-gallon tanks and a gutter system to capture the rain water coming off the car port. The cisterns will supply water to a community food garden and a permaculture garden that Gibson and other members built by removing some of the asphalt from the parking lot.

Greening the church has been a matter of one thing building on another, says Carol Gibson. "Tom got interested in permaculture after he took a course. That led to the church, where we have this median between the church and parking lot that everyone saw as an eyesore. They turned it in to a permaculture garden. Did (sheet mulch) layering with cardboard. It’s a nibbling garden. And then people came forward and said, 'I would like to have a memorial bench in the garden.' A lot of that is paid for by individuals. Everything you see in the garden other than plants is donated. Tom did fundraising for the plants."

"As we were about halfway through with the permaculture garden, (Martens) approached Daniel Budd, the church’s main minister," Mr. Gibson adds. ""If you guys are so green,' he said, 'would you be interested in this solar array?'" 

For his part, Mr. Gibson has been testing out ideas in permaculture and using native plants at the couple's property in Cleveland Heights. His efforts at the church earned him a Guardian of the Future recognition from the national Unitarian Universalist Ministry. A former reporter for Business Week, Mr. Gibson would like to green as much of the church’s 6-acre property as he's permitted.

Is there a connection between producing one’s own power and permaculture—which advocates the possibility of growing food year-round and in unconventional methods such as "hugelkultur", a German gardening concept consisting, in Mr. Gibson’s case, of piling a mound of decaying logs in his backyard?

"Solar power is feasible, and there are economical ways to make it work for everybody," he says. "Now, if we were a for-profit company, would it be as profitable for everybody? In Germany, where we lived from 1974 to 1980, they do a lot of solar power. What are they doing differently? It is not a sunny country. It rains all the time. There's no question that Cleveland can do this."

If it produces more power than the building uses, the meter would literally spin backwards, and the utility would then issue a credit to the church.

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