SENECA FALLS — In the dog days of summer, the First Presbyterian Church has gone solar.
The project, years in the making, came to fruition in recent weeks with the installation of 137 solar panels in two locations: 111 on the roof of Eastman Hall behind the 23 Cayuga St. historic church building and 26 on the roof of the manse on State Street.
The genesis of the project began five years ago when the church’s pastor, the Rev. Leah Ntuala, read an article in a national Presbyterian publication about an Arizona church that had installed solar panels. She posted the article on the church’s Facebook page and invited comments.
Church member Jim Clark was among those whose interest was piqued and he and others started discussing and exploring the possibility. At first, they were drawn to the concept of a community-wide solar project that could provide energy to myriad entities and non-profits, but ultimately the church decided to go it alone.
In their research, committee members learned that certain energy incentives that are provided to homeowners do not carry over to non-profits such as churches. So to qualify for and maximize certain state and federal incentives, the church decided to form a limited liability company (LLC) — the Friends of the Presbyterian Church.
“The real [financial] benefits are coming in tax credits and depreciation,” explained Bob Seem, another church member instrumental in the project. He added that the committed role the local bank, Generations Bank, played was key. Generations provided a favorable loan rate and also donated its federal tax credits and a portion of the depreciation costs.
Clark noted that the $150,000 project qualified for $42,000-plus in federal tax credits, $28,000 in state tax credits and $5,000 in depreciation credits — bringing the total cost down to about $80,000.
“Generations Bank definitely made this work for us,” Clark said. “They were very committed and they would like to do more.”
Ntuala said a church gift from the late Phil Plummer also helped bring the project to fruition. Plummer left his life insurance policy to the church and put no criteria on the gift. A portion was used to help fund the solar panels.
In order to prepare the building for the project, a new roof was installed on Eastman Hall at the rear of the church building in the fall of 2017 and the lights in that building and the church were converted to LED lighting last year. With input from the contractor, Paradise Energy Solutions of Geneva, the committee agreed to install the panels on Eastman Hall and not the church building itself, which has a copper roof, steep pitches and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Eastman Hall is leased to the Creative Choices day care center. Clark said that 66 panels are designated for energy use for that building and 45 for the church, with each building having its own meter (as well as the manse, with its 26 panels). Company and electricity usage estimates indicate the project will pay for itself in energy savings in 10 years; calculations indicate over 20 years $61,000 in electricity savings will be realized at Eastman Hall, $43,500 at the church and $28,000 at the manse.
The panels have 20 years of guaranteed efficiency. Ntuala said enough electricity is being generated (102 percent) now to more than cover the church’s needs.
Ntuala praised Clark for his work in helping to reduce church overhead expenses in other areas such as insurance and Internet costs. This is just more of the same.
Wiping out a large operating expense (energy costs) was what drove Clark to pursue solar energy.
“We’ve invested in ourselves. ... We’ve used money to reduce operating expenses plus giving the benefits of green technology,” he said. “It also sets us up for future updates to the buildings. Maybe we really should be looking at some sort of electric devices.”
Ntuala said perhaps the church will celebrate its transition to solar power next spring, on Earth Day, when the savings and usage can be better calculated and shared with the congregation after six-plus months on the new system. But she’s also keen on sharing the church’s story with others who may be considering the same thing.
“Our hope is that other places will see there is a way to do this potentially for your company, home etc. where you’re making it work for you,” Ntuala said.
She believes that small actions can make a huge impact. She talked about how the church uses real coffee cups, not disposable ones, during coffee hour and how church members are weaving plastic bags into mats to donate to those who work with the homeless.
“It’s just these small steps ... not only do they benefit you, they create a larger ripple, a larger reach,” Ntuala said.