Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Environmental Stewardship: Solar Sanctuaries

by John Berge

For many individuals and businesses, protection of the environment, reducing their carbon footprint, and doing their bit to reduce global warming and climate change are the primary reasons for installing solar panels. For some, the federal tax credits may be the deciding factor, since they reduce the overall costs and the “payback” time. But for churches and other non-profit organizations, those credits are not available; yet they may still want to do their part as good environmental stewards.

Solar energy promotes a cleaner and healthier environment, lowers energy costs which means more money for mission and programs, and provides an excellent and very visible example to their community.
The former Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Racine installed solar panels on its south roof
So if there are no tax incentives, what is available? Renew Wisconsin provides grants for churches and other non-profits installing solar panels. They can provide up to 20% of costs of solar arrays as well as grants for site assessment ($250) and engineering review ($500). Renew Wisconsin, thanks to a local philanthropist, will award up to $125,000 to churches and other non-profits in Wisconsin. They have been “the organized voice for renewable energy since 1991.”

Another route is to team up with a business or individual that can use these tax incentives. Newer churches often have sufficient land, and older churches frequently have large roof areas for solar panels that businesses might not have. A church and a business can form a Limited Liability Corporation, in which  the church is the minority (such as 15%) partner and the business or individual is the majority owner which can use the federal tax credit. The LLC will build the solar array on the property of the church, thus lowering the costs for both the church and the business.

The potential for the business is to deduct as depreciation up to 85% of the costs over five or six years. The church will get its electric power at a significant discount over the life of the project. In addition, the church usually will be given, or be offered at a sharply discounted price, the solar system at the end of the period of tax credits. This is a new and innovated legal structure for the advantage of the church or non-profit and the business or individual that form the LLC — one that churches should look into. I obviously cannot give all the ins and outs of such a decision, but I can refer everyone to Focus on Energy, Renew Wisconsin, Arch Electric (Wisconsin’s number one installer of solar systems) and Southeast Wisconsin Solar Group Buy for further information.

Obviously, switching to renewable solar power is a major decision for any congregation. I believe that church councils, social ministry, green and property committees, and staff should be investigating all possibilities for reducing their congregation’s carbon footprint.

I also believe that individuals should be expressing their interests in this area to the leaders of their congregation. Wouldn’t it be good environmental stewardship if all congregations would get their electric power from a renewable source such as solar rather than from a coal-fired, carbon dioxide spewing power plant?

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