Light of the World: SJ churches embrace solar power

STOCKTON — The flowers in the garden at Church of the Presentation in north Stockton are as colorful as ever, but it’s the deep blue solar panels atop the church’s red-tile roof that might surprise visitors these days.

Presentation is the latest local faith community to go solar, with a 535-panel system that could virtually eliminate an energy bill that now tops $67,000 per year.

The money that used to go to Pacific Gas and Electric Co. will instead pay for other needed improvements at the church and adjacent school, as well as for various ministry efforts.

“It’s amazing how this thing called the sun can make all the electricity that we need to live on,” Mark Gaff, Presentation’s director of facilities, said as he showed off the new system on Thursday.

“It’s going to be really cool,” he said.

From First Baptist Church of Lodi, to the Islamic Center of Manteca, more and more places of worship in San Joaquin County are installing solar systems.

The list also includes First Baptist Church of Stockton and Quail Lakes Baptist Church, two other large Stockton churches that chose to build rows of solar carports across portions of their parking lots.

At least 130 congregations statewide have embraced solar power, according to the California branch of Interfaith Power & Light. But there may be many more that the nonprofit organization, which promotes environmental sustainability as a tenet of faith and assists churcheswith making the transition, doesn’t even know about.

“We have many congregations doing it and even more looking into it,” said Susan Stephenson, the group’s California director. “We get calls, probably weekly, from congregations wanting us to help them figure out financing, which is probably the biggest barrier.”

Indeed it is. While solar power sounds great for nonprofit churches pinched by tight operating budgets, the churches are tax-exempt and therefore don’t qualify for the tax rebates that make solar cheaper for homes and businesses.

At Presentation, the solution was to enter into a power purchase agreement with a private company, El Dorado Hills-based K12 Solar. The company owns the panels, receives the tax break, and passes on those savings to Presentation through a lower power rate per kilowatt hour.

The church took out a loan and put money down upfront to secure an even lower rate, but in seven years that loan will be paid off and all of the church’s energy savings will be available for other uses.

Going solar wasn’t solely a financial decision, said Bill Loyko, a parishioner who serves on Presentation’s finance committee.

“It’s this whole idea of being good stewards,” he said. “If we look at what we’ve been given, it also means this Earth that we have and live in. Anything we can do to care for it, to be more kind, to put less pollution in the air, that’s what everybody’s looking for.”

Quail Lakes Baptist Church acquired its solar panels earlier this year from the same company under a similar agreement, after months of careful research. The church went with carports instead of rooftop panels, because the roofs on its church buildings are 20 to 30 years old, said Fred Hammond, executive director of operations.

A monitor in the foyer tells members of the congregation how much power they’ve saved and the environmental benefits.

“It’s just to show we’re trying to be a responsible part of the community,” Hammond said. “It works for us, and it works for the environment.”

The Islamic Center of Manteca raised enough money in a single prayer sitting to buy outright a smaller system of about 70 rooftop panels. Members were asked to consider sponsoring a panel or two, and that very day, the money had been committed, said Mohammad Elfarra, the center’s imam or prayer leader.

The panels went up in early 2016.

“We were all behind it, for the generations after us not to be burdened by an electric bill, but also because it’s good for the environment,” he said. “We’re supposed to be custodians of the Earth.”

Or, as the Quran says, “When doomsday comes, if someone has a palm shoot in his hand, he should plant it.”

Light of the World: SJ churches embrace solar power, by Alex Breitler, The Record, April 20, 2017.

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