When God’s heavenly light shines down on Wesley UMC in Sedalia, the church experiences more power than any other house of worship around. It’s not that the sun shines brighter on Wesley, it is just that they make better use of it. The far side of Wesley’s parking lot is lined with a new array of solar panels, 10 kilowatts worth.
The inspiration for going solar came from lay leader Lynn Schafer. He’s easy to spot around Sedalia; he’s the guy driving the red 2000 Honda Insight. You might recall Insight was the first hybrid on the highway. The tiny two-seater’s gas mileage is rated at 49 city, 61 highway, unmatched by any hybrid for sale today, including Schafer’s newer Toyota Prius. Considering that his Insight now has 120,000 miles on it, he’s saved roughly 3,750 gallons of gas that would have been used had he been driving a car that gets 20 miles per gallon. Which brings us to Schafer’s primary motivation: he’s concerned about us (the Earth) running out of fossil fuel.
“We’ve got about 50 years worth left,” Schafer said. “That means when my granddaughter is 58, we’re going to be out.”
That’s why Schafer drives hybrids, and is why he had a five kilowatt solar power system installed at his home two years ago. It’s also why he sees being a better environmental steward as being a perfect fit for the denomination’s Rethink Church movement. Not only will the church come closer to living up to the standards stated in the United Methodist book of Social Principles, but by showing they care about the environment, the church may open a door for newcomers. The solar panels let people, particularly young people, know that the church cares about larger issues outside of their own congregation.
It’s a message that’s easy to share. Even before the system was online, the church’s solar project was featured twice in the local newspaper.
“I’ve had a lot of questions about it from people in the community,” said Rev. Rick Adams.
Although Schafer is the guy who gets dubbed “the environmental evangelist” in the church, he was impressed with the support the solar project received from the rest of the congregation.
“People gave more than they could afford to make this happen,” he said.
Like most United Methodist Churches, there is a diversity of perspectives at Wesley UMC. Some think Global Warming is a hoax, and that there are plenty of untapped fossil fuels underground to support consumption well until the time that something else brings the world to a halt. But people in this camp didn’t raise a protest against the solar panels, they supported their installation.
“Over the course of time this will save the church money, and regardless of the environmental necessity, people like saving money,” said Adams. “We received money from people who I didn’t expect to give at all toward this. Some people gave to this who don’t even regularly give to the church.”
Part of that came from persistence on Schafer’s part. He sent everyone in the congregation a letter requesting contributions for the project, and he followed it up with a phone call.
“Sometimes people would ask me if one of their friends was supporting (the solar panels), and when I told them yes, they gave a contribution as well,” Adams said.
After Schafer had the solar system installed in his home a couple of years ago, his home was featured in the local paper. That led to the solar system installers, Cromwell Environmental (www. powertomorrow.com), getting more jobs in the area. For that they were grateful, so Schafer called in a favor. He asked them to bid their project at cost, making enough to cover their own expenses, but not profiting from the endeavor as a company. They agreed and bid accordingly, coming in thousands of dollars below their competitors.
The total cost of the system was about $51,000. Any other business or individual would benefit from a tax credit, but since the church isn’t a taxable entity, this didn’t apply. But the church does benefit from a tax rebate, which substantially reduces its energy bill. And Schafer estimates that in the spring and fall, when the church isn’t using heat or air conditioning, the solar panels will produce more electricity than the church is using, and they will sell energy back to the utility company.
The church is equipped with a meter that monitors how much electricity is being generated, and at Schafer’s request that information is being transmitted via a Bluetooth connection to a screen set up in the church library.
“I wanted people to be able to see what their donations are doing,” Schafer said.
The solar panels became operational in early August. As Schafer considers the project, he’s pleased with the cost savings and statement the panels make about caring for the environment. But he is most pleased with the result: over the course of the next 30 years, having the solar panels at the church should replace the consumption of 150,000 pounds of coal.
If you would like more information about Wesley UMC’s solar power project, e-mail wesfrog@ iland.net.