First Congregational Church Guilford already had its Connecticut Conference Level 3 Green Church designation thanks to the hard work of its long time Environmental Ministry Team leaders, Bob Leete and Ray Jones. That meant new gas fired furnaces, LED light fixtures, energy audit improvements and much more. The Board of Community and World Concerns wanted to do more to expand this environmental stewardship, so in 2014, it set aside $500 of its discretionary outreach budget and asked Bob to help our church do more. Then Bob got sick and ultimately passed away, and then Ray got sick, and things really started to slow down for the EMT and the $500 “seed” money.
Well, that seed money has a story to tell! It sat there all of 2014 and got discussed by the CWC Board again and was again put in the 2015 budget and again it sat there - for all of 2015, but as it was discussed for CWS’s 2016 budget, this active outreach Board thought it might just be the impetus to bring FCCG’s EMT back to life. A sub-committee was formed, and bread was broken with Ray and his wife, Sue, and a recharged EMT began to emerge – again with that $500 to put to work for environmental outreach. The reconstituted EMT officially kicked off with a home cooked, organic themed, meal-meeting on a warm autumn Sunday in October, 2016 with 12 members including Ray and Sue, a former CT state senator who had chaired the State Senate Environmental Committee, a Bell Labs PhD who had just retired after heading up President Obama’s smart-grid initiative, three ministers [we knew we needed prayers], two teachers, a lawyer, a master gardener, and a retired plumber. Our $500 was on its way with the three initial EMT foci being: environmental activism and education within our Church communities; an organic community garden on our wonderfully sunny church grounds; and an investigation of a solar installation at the church.
Fast forwarding to December, 2017, as FCCG is preparing for its 375th birthday in 2018, much has happened and our EMT is thriving: the first year organic garden donated over 175lbs of produce to the Guilford food panty and to our Syrian refugee family, we hosted Church School classes and the garden was dedicated this summer as the Reverend Dr. Raymond Jones Memorial Organic Community Garden; many of our congregants are active participants in the Shoreline Indivisible environmental action committee which meets at our church, and we have an EMT bulletin board in Fellowship Hall; and, then the focus of this article, FCCG activated its 23 kwh solar power installation on December 21, 2017 which is designed to produce 100% of the electricity needs of our Church/Church School building with a forward, carbon contributing footprint of zero.
FCCG’s solar installation kicked off with that first lunch meeting. Our Bell Labs PhD and one of our EMT ministers took the lead in the investigation of a solar installation by contacting other UCC churches and members of our congregation who had solar installations. That led them to architects, installers and facilitators who were all great in bringing this EMT Solar sub-committee up the learning curve. Slowly, with a lot of hard work and analysis from this group of people, with so many backgrounds and skill sets, and after the sub-committee had received a number of confirming analyses from installers about the solar potential of our church/church school building, the concept evolved that a solar installation was feasible for FCCG. Now, we are a church and we are the UCC, so the next step was to figure out how many dozen committees we had to go through to get approval for an installation!
Since the installation was going on a building, the logical first step was the Building Committee; call the chairperson – she liked the idea, but added that it had to be at no cost to the church and that this was really a Church Council question; call the Council chairperson – he liked the idea, but added that it had to be at no cost to the church and that we should come to a Council meeting to introduce our proposal and that we really should be talking to the ministers and the Finance Committee; they all liked the idea, but it had to be at no cost to the church and we needed to educate every member [luckily we had our teachers] so no one was surprised in our covenantal community - we needed to get the word out and have some adult forums after church and, by the way, you do know the Church is in a Historic District, so how is it going to look and you are going to need Historic District Commission approval; and what about snow and ice building up? Seriously, our EMT got nothing but support from every segment of our church, probing questions from some, who after having all of their questions answered, actually joined the sub-committee and became an integral part of getting our solar installation installed.
Now for the details of our roadmap:
- lean on other churches and the Conference staff for their experience and knowledge;
- look to and use the skill sets of people in your church – our Bell Labs PhD, teachers and our lawyer were great resources [minister prayers helped too!];
- find a good installer who is willing to work with a church, meaning a charitable organization that cannot directly use income tax credits and deductions and takes longer because it has to work things through a covenantal community;
- with State of Connecticut inducement, Eversource annually issues a limited number of zero emission energy credits that pay about $2,500/year for 15 years for an installation our size – these ZRECs form the third leg [along with the tax credits and tax deductions] to the economic model that encourages third parties to pay for the solar installation while passing along to the church a substantial, locked-in reduction in electric rates [about 50% less for our installation] – apply early, there are a limited number of ZRECs each year and, given the State of Connecticut’s fiscal woes, no one knows how long they will be available;
- we used a third-party who owns our solar installation and is responsible for its maintenance and, in effect, rents our roof for up to 15 years, providing FCCG with electricity at a locked-in rate that is half the current Eversource rate [NOTE: the EMT followed instructions - a solar installation at no cost to the Church!];
- FCCG was the first solar installation on the Guilford Green [and pretty much the entire historic district], so our approach with the Historic District Commission was to help it develop an aesthetically thoughtful precedent for these necessary and important environmental improvements - at our suggestion, the Commission specified all black glass panels that are much less visible than blue or grey, foil-edged panels – black panels cost about 10% more and pulled our per kw savings down from 53% to 50%, but visually, for an installation that could be in place 15 -25 years, it was worth it!;
- snow and ice slides can be prevented with nearly invisible, snow/ice fences on the bottom and middle rows of panels; and
- one late development as the leaves fell this fall – squirrels love solar installations and we have a big nest in our much-loved birch tree [there is a Landscaping Committee too!] – panels are a perfect nesting home and ultimately bad news for the insulation on the panels’ electrical connections -- solution: we added manufactured, critter guards installed around all the edges and, since it was a preventive maintenance action, our installer shared half the cost with us!
Jon Leckerling is co-chair of the Environmental Ministries Team at First Congregational Church of Guilford.