First Parish Rallies Around Solar and Community
"Under the Sun" Solar Blog | October 1, 2020 | Posted by Lyndsay Ulin
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It’s not easy to reach a consensus in a large group of people. Yet for First Parish Church of Milton, MA not only did their democratic congregation vote to invest in solar for their church community, they did it unanimously.
“It was the first unanimous vote in my memory, and I’ve been with the church for fifteen years,” says Tony Dutzik. A member of the Parish Committee, Tony is one of the parishioners on the church’s Solar Task Force that came together to turn the church’s aspirations of solar energy into reality.
Putting Responsibility First
Talks about solar energy began for the church in 2018 with the congregation rallying around it after a long process of research and education, but First Parish has been striving for environmental responsibility long before that. It’s an issue close to their hearts. Their cherished church meetinghouse is a late 18th century structure, and energy efficiency upgrades such as air sealing and efficient lighting have both helped improve energy costs and comfort of the building, without compromising its character.
While the panels would be installed on the roofs of the offices, parish hall, and children’s church (a small chapel designed as a replica of the meetinghouse) rather than the meetinghouse itself, they wanted to ensure their solar array would still mesh seamlessly with the aesthetic of the church. They chose all-black panels with black frames that would blend with the roof. ReVision Energy was selected for the installation of the 173-panel solar array, with nonprofit solar development company Resonant Energy, and solar financing company Collective Sun. Resonant Energy was instrumental in helping the church to prepare for their Request for Proposals to choose their installation partners, presenting to the church’s subcommittees on multiple occasions and helping them to understand the economics of their future project.
While few people were on-site for the actual install due to COVID-19 restrictions, Tony notes that the process was quick and smooth. The final appearance of the installed array was a pleasant surprise. “The panels blend into the historical character of the church so well, they look like they were there from the beginning,” he says.
As a nonprofit unable to take advantage of tax credits, First Parish got creative with fundraising to make financing the large solar project more feasible. They asked members of the congregation to “buy” a panel, or a portion of a panel which they could dedicate to their loved ones, and were met with a surge of support. This fundraising effort alone covered a full third of the total system cost.
Now installed, the array itself will help cut costs going forward. “Like any nonprofit, we have to balance services with contributions that our members can make,” says Tony. “Having a long-term reduction in our operating costs directly enables us to do more for our congregation and have a greater social impact.”
Their 61.8-kilowatt solar array will produce roughly 120% of their annual energy needs, a deliberate oversizing of their system that plays directly into their values of environmental and social responsibility as a Unitarian Universalist church. “Tradition calls on us to respect and value the interconnected web of life that sustains us all. It’s really the core to our shared faith together,” says Tony.
… And Community Benefit
One way those values manifest is through sharing of their electricity production. Massachusetts’ Community Solar Program enables them to allocate nearly all of their excess energy production to a community partner, the Unitarian Universalist Ministry in Roxbury. “We are in essence selling our excess electricity at a discount to a partner doing good work in the community. It’s a win-win,” says Tony.
Meanwhile, the project itself has had a surprising impact beyond solar generation in this socially distant time. While the congregation has been able to stay in touch online, they are missing that sense of community from being together in person. They were finally able to organize their first in-person event since COVID-19 – an outdoor celebration of the completed installation of their solar array this September. “Coming together around this solar project provided a sense of community,” says Tony. “It’s really made a difference in ways you can’t tally up in dollars and cents.”