Solar Panels for Central Congregational Church

Since last fall (fall 2022) Ollie Jones has been working on a project to get solar panels on the roof of Central Congregational Church. This is an explanation of the project, with some questions and answers.

The proposal: to authorize the reinvestment of up to $70,000 of the church’s endowment fund to build this solar-panel project in 2023. This money will cover an installation price of $64,926. And, when the $19,478 of government incentive payments arrive, probably in 2024, return them to the endowment. Bottom line, a net cost of $45,448. The request for $70,000 includes about $5,000 over the quoted price in case of some unavoidable extra expense.

The plan is to put 46 solar panels on the roof of the Sunday School building (the same roof that was renovated in August 2022). Here’s where they will go on the roof, shown on a satellite view of an online maps app. The vendor can do the work by early summer 2023.

Map app satellite view of Central Congregational Church showing the position of the proposed solar panels.

We’ll generate roughly 20,200 kilowatt hours each year (declining slightly as the panels age). The church (prepandemic) in 2018 used 20,588 kilowatt hours. So, we will generate about what we use.

What will this cost? The vendor, Sunbug Solar, has quoted $64,926 for a completed project. And, next year we get $19,478 back in government incentives, so the net cost is will be $45,448.

We’ll also receive about $600 a year from Renewable Energy Credits. That should be enough to cover $300/year in maintenance and $300/year in a potential insurance premium increase.

The vendor estimates that the system will pay for itself in about eight years, and has a 30-year useful lifetime with a panel warranty of 25 years.

Questions and answers

Why do this?

To generate green energy, to save money long term, and to set an example of good care for God’s earth and her atmosphere.

Why do this now?

Electricity prices are rising fast. So is climate change and the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And, we are eligible for generous government incentive payments. And, no house of worship in Newburyport has yet installed solar panels, so we have the opportunity to show the way.

What are the government incentive payments?

There’s a 30% federal government investment tax credit. The “Inflation Reduction Act” of 2022 made that tax credit available, paid with a check, to nonprofit organizations such as Central Congregational Church. We will file a document with the IRS when the project is done and they’ll pay us sometime later. The US Treasury Department has not yet (as of mid-January 2023) decided exactly how they will make these payments. If we assume they will pay us by the end of 2024 for a project completed in 2023 we should be safe.

What are Renewable Energy Credits (RECs)?

Somebody buying a “carbon offset” actually buys renewable energy credits. Our vendor will connect us to a broker who sells them for us and sends us checks. The current REC price is 3¢ per kWh. At that price we’ll be paid 3¢ X 20,200 = $606 per year.

How does this work with National Grid?

These panels will be hooked up to National Grid through our electric meter. They will buy our excess power generation. The arrangement is called “net metering”. It’s simple and fair: “the meter runs backwards” whenever our power generation exceeds our usage. Part of a recent bill passed in August 2022 — MA house bill H5060: An Act Driving Clean Energy and Offshore Wind — increased the threshold under which solar projects can receive “full retail” net metering. Because of this, the project will get the same favorable net metering as residential arrays in Massachusetts. Several Central people, including this author, have this arrangement for our home solar panels. Questions and answers about National Grid’s net metering policy are here on their web site.

Don’t we use more power in winter? Don’t panels generate more power in summer?

Yes, and yes. The net metering arrangement handles this situation. A credit builds up in the church’s electric account in summer. In winter we use the credit.

Who is the solar-panel contractor?

A company called Sunbug Solar. They will design, install and connect the system, and take care of municipal permitting. In 2012 SunBug was the installer selected by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) through a competitive bid process to become the Solarize Newburyport installer, an initiative championed by then-Mayor Donna Holladay. SunBug installed 48 solar panel projects across the city during Solarize Newburyport.

Can I see Sunbug’s proposal?

Yes, of course. Please contact Ollie Jones to get access. Please ask the church office if you need his contact information.

Is this equipment safe to put on the roof?

Yes, Sunbug has been doing this work since 2009, and has installed over 2,500 systems.

Why not put solar panels on the whole roof?

The rest of the church’s roof is slate. It’s difficult, expensive, and risky to install solar panels on slate.

How accurate is their estimate of the power we’ll get?

Experience shows these estimates are accurate. They use a specialized software package called Aurora to estimate power output based on roof angles, sun angles, and historical weather information. That package is certified by MassCEC. Central’s estimates are especially accurate because we have no trees or buildings casting shade on our roof.

Will the church own these panels outright?

Yes. Rental, financing and leaseback deals are available but they’re complex. Owning the installation is more straightforward.

What’s a kilowatt hour (kWh)?

25¢ worth of electricity at last summer’s rates. A hair dryer on high for a half-hour.

What’s the warranty?

25 years on panels. 5 years on installation labor and materials.

How long do the panels last?

The panels are warranted to be 86% effective after 25 years.

How was the 8 year payback period estimated?

The estimate was made with a spreadsheet model assuming a 3% annual increase in the cost of electricity and a 0.5% annual decrease in the effectiveness of the solar panels. Sunbug’s cash-flow-estimate spreadsheet is here.

What is the church’s electric billing history?

See Jim Robinson’s spreadsheet here.

Who maintains this equipment?

The church pays for non-warranty maintenance. Most Sunbug installations don’t need maintenance. Another proposal quoted an annual price of $300 for routine maintenance.

How much does this increase the church’s insurance premium?

We should budget $250-300/year to cover it, according to Jim Stewart, our insurance agent. That helps with managing the risk of loss in a fierce windstorm or other event.

Will we still have electricity if there’s a grid power failure?

No. We’re still dependent on the grid. It’s possible to install a backup battery bank, but this proposal does not include that.

Will squirrels cause problems by nesting in these panels?

Sunbug’s sales engineer thinks they will not. No nearby trees are tall enough to give them access to the roof. But, Sunbug will check during installation, and recommend “Critter Guard” screening if need be.

What about snow sliding off the panels and the roof?

The proposed system includes Snow Guard fencing along the edge of the roof to prevent sheets of snow from sliding off the panels.

Do we have to finish this project in 2023 or lose the investment tax credit?

No. The investment tax credit payment to nonprofits is good for ten years, until 2032.

Do Historical Preservation Grant restrictions affect this project?

The answer is not yet known.

Who worked on this project?

Impressively detailed proposals came from the dedicated people at 621 Energy (Danielle Wagner and Bob Clarke) and Sunbug Solar (Ian Pahl and Ben Mayer). Thanks to Tom MacLachlan for kindling the flame of this project. Jim Nail of Massachusetts Interfaith Power and Light gave some great advice. Thanks to Jim Robinson for keeping meticulous records of the church’s power use, to Kathleen Melanson and Carol Daigle for documents and access, and to Amantha Moore and Don Little for advice and encouragement. Ollie Jones did the telephone calls and other research, and wrote this summary. He alone is responsible for any mistakes, omissions, or misunderstandings.

How can I find out more?

Ask a question in the comments here. Or, please don’t hesitate to contact Ollie Jones by email, telephone, or in person. Please ask the church office for his contact information if you need it.

Are you considering a solar panel project for your church, home, or other building? Do you need to explain the project? You may use the contents of this article. “Permission is hereby granted to use this material for any purpose and without fee, with or without attribution, provided you remove Central Congregational Church’s specific information and insert your own.

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