St. Martin’s Celebrates Solar

St. Martin’s Celebrates Solar

by Gerry Braun, Member, St. Martin's, Davis

The Episcopal Church of St. Martin's in Davis is celebrating the first full year of operation of its new solar carport. The project, together with a smaller array purchased 15 years earlier, supplies 80% of the church’s electricity and reduces the its annual electricity bill by nearly 25% (vs. the cost of grid electricity). The project was timely in three important aspects.  

First, along with other energy, water and waste management efforts of the parish’s Care for God’s Creation Commission, this solar project responds to Pope Francis’ recent call for “all people of goodwill” to mitigate human-induced climate change and respond to environmental degradation. Second, it has stimulated parish-wide interest in similar measures parishioners can take in their own homes. Third, it was a learning experience that can demystify and inform other parishes’ consideration of solar upgrades. Specifically, the project’s only budgetary impact was positive. Money was saved, not spent, and savings are expected each of the next 25 years and beyond. 

Important Solar Details - Environmentally and Economically Attractive

It is especially important to explain how and why, because changes are expected in some of the little known public policies that made savings possible. St. Martin's did not purchase anything. Rather, the carport and its solar array are owned by a solar contractor. Under a power purchase agreement between the parish and the contractor, all of the electricity from the array is distributed to parish electricity circuits, with any shortfall (e.g. at night) made up by PG&E and any excess (e.g. during periods when usage is low) spilling over into the grid and credited to the church at the price PG&E would charge. 

This arrangement, called net energy metering, is one of the main reasons solar electricity is making such great strides in California. Combined with incentives for new solar assets (investment tax credits and accelerated depreciation under Federal law) and prices for grid electricity that vary according to time of day and time of year, net energy metering makes solar electricity both environmentally and economically attractive. 

But, of course, there is a catch that Episcopal parishes need to know about. Incentives change, and so do utility rate schedules. Federal incentives are set to expire at the end of 2016, and so will the rate schedules that result in the greatest cost savings. Even so, parishes have a comfortable period of time to do serious homework regarding possible solar upgrades. 

(Not to imply that climate action should on a “comfortable” schedule. That’s the problem…climate action still is on a schedule that is comfortable for the comfortable, even as world’s most vulnerable populations are increasingly impacted by accelerating environmental degradation and a changing climate.) 

Specifically, churches that are not currently on PG&E’s A-6 rate schedule should consider switching to it if they are interested in a solar upgrade within the next couple years. At the end of 2016, non-residential electricity users on the A-6 schedule will be allowed to remain on it. This schedule includes high prices for electricity during summer daytime peak usage periods. St. Martin's recommends that energy conscious churches contact their PG&E account rep sooner than later.

PG&E is a source of expert help in evaluating annual electricity cost implications of alternative rates for alternative scenarios, including solar upgrades. In the process PG&E can advise on other energy upgrades as well. PG&E recently sent an energy usage specialist to do a walk-through of St. Martin's facilities. The specialist recommended a lighting retrofit that is saving us money and also reducing our usage. Other churches could benefit from this type of free technical assistance as well.  

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