At the head of Church Street, Burlington’s famous cobbled walking street lined with shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes, stands the First Unitarian Universalist Society church. It’s a grand brick building with a spreading lawn at it’s doorstep perfect for Frisbee or enjoying some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bought down the street on a sunny day. Our journey, however, took us around back, into the parking lot.
At the end of January, the church finished it’s project of 102 24.5 kilowatt solar panels mounted on a carport above the parking lot. Members Jeff and Bob gave us a rundown of the process. Inspired by the Green Sanctuary Program, the 450 member Burlington UU congregation had been making efforts to increase their building’s efficiency and lessen it’s impact on the environment. Such efforts included inspecting every corner of the church and installing timed thermostats and lights, and finding holes in the buildings efficiency, such as unneeded fans in the vents. Bob, however, had grander plans. He brought the idea of solar panels to the congregation, and they democratically debated and pondered until a consensus was reached: they would go for it.
The total cost of the project ran $155,000. 30% came from grants the church received, and the other 70% from anonymous donors. The initial plan was to be able to produce 90% of their electricity, with supplements from the electric company. However, the results of their solar panel project after six months of use: they are now getting credit back from the electric company. It works in the same way as rollover minutes on a cellphone: if you don’t use all the minutes up on your plan, they carry over and you have that many more for the next month. The solar panels are currently producing more energy than the church needs to use, which then is thrown back into the grid. This gives the church “rollover” kilowatt hours — credit on their next energy bill.
We left the church with a few take-home messages we anxiously waited to share. First, while the church did pay a hefty $155,000, they get a long payback. Rather than dueling with rising energy prices, the church paid a fixed cost upfront and are now able to supply their own energy, for free. Second, small, non-profit organizations should not lose hope on the solar panel front: there is money out there to fund environmental projects, and there are people willing to donate it because they do support the cause.
Stay tuned as BHA Films edits the footage from this interview. It will be up soon!