Church saves money, and sends message, with solar

STORY BY TERRY JORDEN IN THE EDMONTON PRIME TIME, MAR 28, 2018

When you walk past St. Paul’s United Church in Belgravia, you can’t help but notice the large and impressive south facing sloped roof.

In fact, if you’re an engineer specializing in green energy, you might even say it’s the perfect roof for solar panels. Even some church parishioners remarked that the church was ideally suited.

When Justin Wheler began attending the church in 2006, the thought may have crossed his mind, too. But it wasn’t until 2011, after the roof was upgraded, that the idea began to take shape. An energy audit of the 62-year-old building recommended the need for some new windows, the removal of an old fridge and gas stove and the installation of LED lights.

One thing that surprised me was that a lot of people thought it would be much more complicated than it ended up being.
— Justin Wheler

By 2013, Wheler obtained a quote to install solar panels for the church to consider. But, as is often the case, budgets were tight and resources were going towards other church’s ministries such as a campus ministry, a food security program in Garneau and Old Strathcona, a quilting group and a school in Zambia.

One day in 2017 Wheler became aware of the City of Edmonton’s EcoCity grant program, created to support community projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. St. Paul’s solar panel project seemed like the perfect fit.

With two days before the grant application deadline, Wheler and the rest of the solar power committee of Clare Irwin, Bob Miller, Chris Peet, Jocelyn Proby and Hami Razaghi, received the blessing of the church board and submitted the grant application for the $70,000 project. (Other key church members include Coleen Falk and Dawn MacDonald.)

What was once just an idea became a reality when the $25,000 EcoCity grant was received, another $25,000 was quickly raised through donations and a $14,000 Energy Efficiency Alberta rebate was factored in.

Western Canada-based Skyfire Energy was selected to do the work and finished the project in late January. There are now 95 panels covering 75 percent of the south side sanctuary roof. It is estimated the panels will generate about 28,000 kWh annually, supplying most of the church’s electrical needs. St. Paul’s spends about $2,000 annually on electricity.

St. Paul Rev. Catherine MacLean says one of the challenges for the church was to generate donations for the project that would not divert funds away from other church activities.

“People were invited to donate, and made aware of the other investments of resources in which the congregation is involved,” says Rev. MacLean. “And we are happy to say that the solar panels are fully funded without inhibiting any other work. We believe that they enhance our purpose and reflect the wonder of God’s hand in creation.”

“One thing that surprised me was that a lot of people thought it would be much more complicated than it ended up being,” says Wheler.

“Once we decided to actually go for the project and pursue it with some dedication, things went very smoothly,” he says. “We went from an idea one day, to a grant application the next day, to a fully funded project three months later. Then we selected a contractor and had it installed in less than a year. For a volunteer organization, that is extremely fast.”

While solar panels are appearing throughout the city on private and public properties, relatively few are on church buildings.

One church to go solar was the St. Albert United Church. A 4.75 kWh solar panel awning system was installed in 2011. More recently the Zion Baptist Church of Kensington received a EcoCity grant for a solar panel project.

St. Paul’s United has begun to receive enquiries from other organizations because of its very visible location in the neighbourhood south of the main University of Alberta campus.

For all those considering going green, Wheler has some advice.

“Go for it. Now is the time. “There is great support from all levels of government right now and there are a lot of very skilled companies working in this industry.

“We are going through a lot of transitions in the electricity system in the province right now, so this might be an important opportunity to hedge against future price increases as well as contributing to climate leadership,” says Wheler.

So, not only do the solar panels reduce electricity costs and greenhouse emissions, they also send a powerful message to all who pass by.

“Solar panels on the roof of a church … are like a giant billboard for the church,” says Wheler. “It says: ‘Hey, we are going to be here for a while and we care about the environment. We are looking forward. We are progressive. This is a place where things are happening. Come on it and check us out.'”

You can monitor the project’s daily energy generation here.