St. Peter Parish in Rutland has entered the solar energy age, the first parish in the Diocese of Burlington to install money-saving solar panels to generate electricity; it seems appropriate that the pastor is a Capuchin Franciscan.
The project is part of ongoing parish efforts – that included weatherization of the rectory and installation of energy-saving LED light bulbs – to conserve both energy and funds and is "in line" with Pope Francis' call to care for "our common home," the Earth, said Order of Friars Minor, Capuchin Father Thomas Houle, pastor. "He is getting this (focus) from St. Francis, and I, as a Franciscan, adhere to that."
St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of ecology and founder of the Order of Friars Minor.
Father Houle said the parish's care of the environment concern is not just about the economic benefits but "to protect God's creation" for future generations.
Parishioner Joseph Barbagallo, a retired Central Vermont Public Service system coordinator, coordinated the solar panel project for St. Peter's. About two years ago he learned that Green Mountain Power, the parish's electric utility, had grants available for the installation of solar panels.
The parish formed an investigating committee that presented the idea to the Parish Council and Finance Committee. In early 2016 the parish received permission from the diocese to move forward with the project.
Within two months of getting the OK, the parish solar array went live on March 7.
In its first 10 days, it produced $57 worth of electricity. "We anticipate that will be higher as the days get longer and the sun brighter," Barbagallo said.
With a $20,000 grant from Green Mountain Power and a $6,000 contribution from Rutland-based Same Sun of Vermont Inc. – which installed the panels – the parish only needed to contribute $20,000 for the $46,000 project.
As of March 18, a fundraising campaign for the $20,000 had garnered $9,000 as supporters of the parish offered $600 for a panel and $10 for a cell on the panel.
The solar panels will offset the cost of electricity for the parish rectory; the bill for fiscal year 2014- 2015 was about $2,500.
With anticipated savings of that $2,500 a year, "no money changes hands" because if the array overproduces, the credit can be applied to the church building's electric bill, said Philip Allen, president of Same Sun of Vermont. "They will never lose the credit."
Among the components of the parish's solar array are 30 315-watt panels and a ground mount with six ballasts weighing a total of 48,000 pounds. Located between the former parish school and the rectory, the array is surrounded by a four-foot chain-link fence for safety.
The virtually maintenance-free system is expected to produce 12,255 kilowatt hours of clean energy per year. This will offset 183.825 tons of carbon in its lifecycle, expected to be at least 30 years.
"Whether you're an individual or a church or a business, you've got to think long term," Allen said. "People down the road [in the future] are going to thank the people that put in the solar panels."
The nearly 150-year-old stone church rises on Convent Avenue behind the new solar panels. "Solar is the right thing to do because it's clean energy, but it's also the smart thing to do," Allen said. "This is a [parish] institution with an incredible history that is looking to do something for the future."
Father Houle expressed gratitude to the parishioners and church attendees who made the project possible.
"We are trying to be good stewards of the church and keep a healthy environment for our parish to worship in," Barbagallo said, encouraging other parishes to look into ways to make their parish buildings more energy efficient. "There are thousands of dollars out there that can be saved. It's up to each parish to find out how to do it."
Peter Wells, a member of the diocesan Building Commission and director of insurance and facilities, said the St. Peter's solar array "might be an inducement for others to undertake" such a project.
For St. Peter's, "it looks like solar is the way to go as an alternative source" of energy, Wells said. "I urge other parishes that have an interest [in solar energy] to go ahead and explore it."
Article and photos by Cori Fugere Urban, Vermont Catholic staff writer.