A community-powered, church rooftop solar installation

Hamilton based writer Beatrice Ekoko is collecting stories for the Revitalizing Solar for Faith Groups year long project of Faith and the Common Good to inspire Ontario faith communities into going solar. Contact her if you have a story to tell, or if you want more information about this project.


Cathy Greven describes it this way: “With our church, everything fell into place.”

She’s talking about the 60kW solar PV installation on the rooftop of Port Nelson United Church (PNUC), in Burlington Ont., that recently came online through the Feed in Tariff (FIT) program.

But don’t be fooled. It took years of visioning and hard work to get to here.

I recall Greven and I sitting at a small cafe in Westdale Village (Hamilton), discussing how her church might participate in the program that the Ontario Government had just launched (2009). I was there for Faith and the Common Good’s ‘Greening Sacred Spaces’ program to encourage faith groups with ideal rooftops into taking that leap of faith and going solar.

Here was an opportunity that aligned nicely with what many faith groups consider a cornerstone of their teachings—to be caretakers of the earth—while gaining a return on their investment that could be put towards programs at the place of worship.

I’d invited along a leader from a church that had already done solar on their rooftop to help make sense of what was, in its infancy, an unruly FIT.

Over coffee, this retired Secondary School Guidance Counselor picked our brains: “How can we make this work for us?” she wanted to know.

Four years later, Greven’s dream has come true.

Who is coming for dinner?

PNUC is no stranger to Greven’s decade-long greening efforts: regular greening tips in the weekly bulletin, ‘environmental Sundays,’ energy conservation action—even a wellness centre.

“They’d been hearing from me often and the idea of a solar project had been percolating for a while, but this time, when I asked, I got real interest,” Greven explains.

But first thing first… there was the roof that needed to be replaced.

It happened that the money to redo the roof came from a parishioner’s mother.

Before Greven and a few other members of the church went to present the solar panels idea to Church Council, this benefactor invited them over for dinner in the hopes of their finding synergy between those working on getting a new roof, and those interested in a solar project.

“There were all the right people. It was at this supper that we decided to become a formal committee to apply.”


From Church Committee project to not-for-profit Renewable Energy Co-operative

The committee presented their request to Church Council who presented to the Trustees to see if they would fund it. “Trust the Trustees,” said Church Council, when the Trustees voted unanimously in favour of the idea.

“I thought of all groups they would object to it!” Greven remarks, “but being upset about the low interest they were making on GICs, they immediately saw the advantage of a government contract.”

Initially, the plan was to apply as a church group, but since they had enough room to put on a small FIT project (as opposed to a 10kW microFIT), they decided instead to create a co-operative and gain community points—increasing the likelihood of being successful and being awarded a project.

With an 80% rate of rejection, “the chances of us getting this was infinitesimal,” Greven continues.

To the Council and Trustees, this new approach was hugely disappointing, as it would mean a fraction of the return on investment projected. As well, setting up a cooperative costs: fees to incorporate, set up the by-laws, creating all the legal documents for the Roof Lease Rental, Loan from the Trustees, Security Agreements.

Then there are the costs of insurance for the installation on the roof and to insure the Co-operative Board have the books audited and have annual tax returns made up ($3000 annually).

“But the Trustees had so much faith in us, they gave us the go ahead with their blessings, no strings attached,” Greven says, “even though there was a good chance the money could very well be lost if we would not be successfully granted a contract.”

The PNUC Cooperative was formed as a separate entity from the church, (made up of PNUC church members).

They received the Notice to Proceed (NTP) a few months later and didn’t have to look for funding: the church decided it was better than anything they had invested. “It’s a wonderful model. We had started looking into loans but we didn’t need to collect more money. They totally funded it.”


Next steps

Greven, who is Chair of the board, is a ‘big picture, big ideas’ type of person. She’s thrilled at the board makeup: There’s a retired engineer, a communications and education person, a person who works at an inverter company, another who does the accounting.

“It all came at the right time. It was a gift,” Greven asserts. “The younger guys are bringing fresh energy; they want to grow this.”

The cooperative’s mandate is that once their expenses are paid, dollars made go to green projects at the church (energy conservation, energy audit, LEEDS certification, solar lights in the parking lot etc) or towards supporting green projects in the broader community.

Although they are just getting started, the cooperative’s goal is to connect with other faith groups and offer support on going solar. It makes a lot of sense: some churches have the roof but no dollars; others have the money and no suitable exposure. The coop’s idea is to bring them face-to-face to work together.

“There is so much negative and doom and gloom in church.  This was something we could do that was positive.” Greven ends.


PNUC Co-operative at a glance

The PNUC Coop owes the project, but they rent the roof from the church ($5400 annually).

To put this system in, the church had to be upgraded to ‘Three phase’ electrical supply connections. The benefit to the church is that they are now set for a high efficiency furnace, which would have cost thousands of dollars but that the coop covered.

PNUC pays for the use of meeting space and address at the church.

This renewable power generation project on its own will reduce 42 tons of CO2 released in the atmosphere a year (if it replaces natural gas power generation), which equates to 9 typical gasoline cars taken off the road.

There is no investment opportunity (bonds, shares), although this is a possibility down the line.


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