A Higher Power

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has cut its electric bill since installing solar panels in the spring and has even built up a credit heading into the winter months. /photo: Energy Independent Solutions

With the installation of rooftop solar panels, the leadership at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church believes it has made an investment that benefits both the church and our planet.

The commitment to solar energy is also in keeping with a promise made in the church’s baptismal covenant. “We agree to cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect the beauty and integrity of all creation,” says the Rev. Noah Evans, St. Paul’s rector.

St. Paul’s commitment to environmental stewardship predates Evans’ arrival in 2017. The parish’s sustainability committee led the way with the installation of energy-efficient windows and motion-sensing LED lighting. The church retrofitted its stained glass windows to increase energy efficiency. “That was one of the things that attracted me to the church,” Evans says.

With the support of its new rector, church leadership moved to the next step. Congregation members donated $48,000 to cover the cost of the 51 panels. The roof’s flat surface allows for daylong exposure and increased power generation, even on a cloudy day.

Early results of going off the electrical grid were impressive, knocking more than 70 percent off the $1,000 to $1,300 electric bill for the church building, which includes a 400-seat sanctuary, a nursery school serving 200 children, church offices and meeting rooms.

It gets better. Since the March installation, as the days warmed and lengthened, the panels generated more energy than the church needed. Duquesne Light credited the excess power against future usage.

“It’s like the meter is running backwards,” Evans says with evident delight. He estimates that the panels’ cost will be recouped within 18 months.

Church leadership wants the congregation to share in its commitment, and its success. They’ve set up a monitor in the parish hall that displays the panels’ output. Nursery school kids toured the church last spring and learned more about sun power.

According to Pennsylvania Interfaith Power and Light, a State College-based organization that assists faith communities with green stewardship, St. Paul’s is the only church in southwestern Pennsylvania to install solar panels on site. But these efforts may be part of a trend: St. Paul’s committee members have met with representatives of Sunnyhill Unitarian Universalist Church of the South HIlls and Bower Hill Community Church, who are also committed to increased sustainability.

Sunnyhill is working toward designation as a green sanctuary by the Unitarian Universalist Association. The multi-year process includes the adoption of sustainable waste disposal and energy practices, as well as integrating themes of environmental stewardship into worship and education. And since Bower Hill formed an “eco-justice team” in 2018, they’ve implemented changes including a 25 percent reduction in the use of chemical fertilizer on church grounds, and composting of food scraps after church events. They’ve also replaced plastic communion cups with bio-degradable corn-based cups.

Evans, who lives on Woodhaven Drive with his wife, the Rev. Sara Irwin, and their two children, says St. Paul’s solar panel project has inspired some parishioners to install panels of their own.

“That’s the real impact: how we can inspire others in our community to live out their environmental faith commitment in their own lives.”