Ann Arbor-based Campus Chapel recently achieved net zero energy usage with a solar panel installation, and its congregation is aiming to provide an example to other houses of worship as it continues to implement sustainable practices.
"We've been having a long conversation at the chapel about how to be faithful stewards of God's creation and how that can be enacted through our worship space," says Dieter Bouma, a congregation member who served on the committee that helped raise money for and install solar panels on the chapel at 1236 Washtenaw Court.
Campus Chapel's solar panels have now been in use for just over a year, but the church has already been selected as a showcase for energy-efficient changes other houses of worship could emulate. The church held a Solar Open House on Dec. 10, promoted by the Solar Faithful program, a partnership between the city of Ann Arbor and Michigan Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) to assist local houses of worship in moving toward energy independence.
Practicing "creation care" in Ann Arbor
Campus Chapel, a Christian Reformed Church, has been concerned with climate change for more than a decade. Its members have long felt they should put their beliefs into practice by making their building more energy-efficient. Bouma says the congregation had looked into solar panels a decade ago but didn't have the money for it.
However, in 2015, preparations for the church's 75th anniversary included a capital campaign to improve the building, with solar panels as the centerpiece of the campaign.
Alumni chipped in the lion's share of the total raised, and the church put the project up for bid, settling on Ann Arbor-based Homeland Solar. The installation process kicked off in September 2016, and the church began using its solar panels that October.
Now, after more than a year of having the solar panels in use, Bouma says the chapel has achieved "100 percent offset of electrical energy usage."
The church building still uses natural gas for heating and cooking, and in the winter, the chapel pulls on the electric grid for power. But it produces more than it needs in the summer and gives back some of the energy to the utility grid, achieving net zero usage over the course of the year.
Solar panels are just part of a larger plan for making the Campus Chapel more environmentally friendly, Bouma says.
"We are also looking at things like efficient faucets and toilets for the bathroom, and using repurposed wood for our flooring replacement," he says.
The congregation also hopes to transition from a traditional grass lawn to planting more native plants as part of the chapel's landscaping. In the future, the church will consider updating its water heater and implementing geothermal or other green energy sources for heating and cooling.
Lessons for other houses of worship across Michigan
About six months after Campus Chapel put up its solar panels, congregation members heard about the Solar Faithful program and reached out to the city of Ann Arbor to share their story and see if they could inspire other houses of worship to undertake similar projects. Solar Faithful organizers set up an open house for December 2017, and about 40 people attended, asking questions about fundraising and implementation.
"We want to encourage other churches to follow through on their commitments to social justice and caring for the environment," Bouma says.
Bob Chapman is the executive director of Michigan IPL, the local chapter of a national organization dedicated to promoting sustainable practices in houses of worship. He says that if the approximately 150 houses of worship in the greater Ann Arbor area all just took a few steps toward sustainability, it could make a big impact – the equivalent of not having to build a new power plant.
Harnessing that potential was part of the impetus for partnering with Ann Arbor to form the Solar Faithful program, with goals that Chapman calls "pretty ambitious."
Campus Chapel isn't the first or only church in Michigan to undertake this type of project, Chapman says. He adds that the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor was a pioneer in committing to both solar and wind energy. Members of the Ann Arbor Friends have also instituted a "carbon tax" on their energy usage, making voluntary contributions to a "carbon fund" that helps low-income churches implement energy-saving measures.
Chapman notes that Michigan IPL has about 250 members across the state, with Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and almost all the major Christian denominations represented.
"There's this idea of being a good steward of resources, or creation care, and almost every faith tradition has it," Chapman says. "In Michigan, we're at a tipping point, seeing a lot more activity and interest in the possibility of solar, specifically, in the last couple years than we ever had before."
Chapman notes that there is also a social justice dimension to sustainability efforts.
"A number of people of different faiths have pointed out that the effects of climate change and environmental degradation fall most immediately on the poor, who are the people least responsible for it," Chapman says.
Michigan IPL is a warehouse of information and resources for houses of worship on how to fund and install solar panels and other ideas for "going green," Chapman says. Right now is a good time for churches in Michigan to explore solar power since there's a 30 percent tax credit that nonprofits and churches can't use but third parties can. Michigan IPL can counsel houses of worship on how to take advantage of the tax credit before it expires in 2019.
Michigan IPL also works with utilities in some counties and can connect houses of worship with programs that provide free, energy-efficient lighting upgrades.
Chapman notes that if a congregation can't afford solar panels even with a tax credit or a capital campaign, they can still commit to other sustainability measures.
"They can cut down on gas and electric bills, replace the boiler with a more efficient one, switch out incandescent bulbs for LEDs," Chapman says. "People shouldn't think that just because you don't have solar panels on the roof, you're not being green enough. Just start where you're at."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.