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US Catholics switch to renewables – saving money and the planet

This two-megawatt solar system for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington cost US$5 million and reduces energy costs by several hundred thousand dollars a year. Flowering plants cool the panels, boosting their yield

The Catholic Church has more schools, universities, hospitals and clinics than any country in the world, and it’s also one of the largest investment groups on the globe.

Catholic Climate Covenant is a wonderful example of a Catholic organisation that addresses the pressing issue of climate change through its Catholic Energies programme, which helps Catholic congregations switch to renewables in order to reduce the financial and ecological burden of high energy costs.

Dan Misleh, Executive Director of Catholic Climate Covenant, says: "We created Catholic Energies to provide a trusted energy advisory service for the Catholic community.' Currently, Catholic Energies is working on 25 projects across 11 US states, and Puerto Rico – including the US$5 million two-megawatt solar system shown above.

A programme to be proud of

Dan Misleh, Executive Director of Catholic Climate Covenant, told FaithInvest: "We created Catholic Energies to provide a trusted energy advisory service for the Catholic community. We’re very proud of that our programme is garnering the attention of the U.S. Catholic church and we look forward to continuing to guide Catholic institutions as they seek to live up to the challenges of Laudato Si."

'We wanted to motivate the Catholic Church into action, not just as an ethical obligation but also as a financial incentive'

We also spoke to Dan Last, Programme Manager at Catholic Energies, who says: "In 2016, I was approached by Dan Misleh. There was lots of enthusiasm and excitement in the Catholic Church when the 2006 Catholic Climate Covenant launched.

"We wanted to motivate the Catholic Church into action, not just as an ethical obligation but also as a financial incentive. With Catholic Energies, there’s a holy trifecta at work here: saving money, being a witness and saving the planet. It’s also about representing the Catholic Church in a positive way."

Currently, Catholic Energies are working on 25 projects across 11 US states, plus Puerto Rico.

The biggest ever solar project in Washington DC

Catholic Energies started by helping church properties make energy efficient upgrades, including boiler upgrades and switches to LED lightbulbs. In 2018, there was a shift to solar energy, something that is highly attractive to US investors.

The organisation has overseen the largest solar project ever achieved in Washington, DC, a two-megawatt solar system in for Catholic Charities in the archdiocese, costing $5 million and reducing utility costs by several hundred thousand dollars per year, every year, for 15 years or longer.

Dan Last says: "We’ve found a network of renewable energy investors. In Washington, DC, solar projects are lucrative in terms of tax credits and the project is the opposite of risky or low return.

"Being in the middle of a pretty dense urban area, this project presented many unique challenges. We worked closely with local residents and community leaders to address their concerns and ensure that the project won their overall support."

Underneath the solar panels, a mixture of flowering plants have been carefully chosen to boost the yield of the panels (they have a cooling effect) and to flower for most of the year in Washington, DC.

The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church

An example of another Catholic Energies success story is the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hampton. It now has 440 solar panels covering the roof of the church sanctuary and other buildings. This is as much to save money on electricity that can be channelled into other projects as it is about protecting creation.

Father John Grace, the church’s pastor, says that the solar panel array, installed in July 2019, is "adding something to the quality of the life for the future". He goes on to talk about how the retirees in his parish were keen on the solar panel idea, and how they are now saving about 10-11 per cent on energy costs. Grace says: "We have also avoided [producing] about 175 tonnes of greenhouse gases."

They are the first parish in the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, to install solar, which encouraged other parishes to follow suit and allows the whole Diocese to benefit. Younger adults are also being attracted to the parish as it is now strongly demonstrating its commitment to future generations and raising awareness of the environmental challenges that face the region, which is particularly vulnerable to tidal flooding caused by climate change.

Build back better

According to Dan Last, there’s a gap in the non-profit market. He says: "Corporations like Walmart will take advantage of tax breaks, whereas churches are at a disadvantage. We solve this problem by finding third party investors and educating them. They need to know that investments with the Catholic Church are safe."

This is about attracting investors to projects that are ethically and environmentally sound, on behalf of faith-based organisations. The global Covid-19 pandemic may have slowed some progress in terms of building work, but it may help in the long-term to refine the priorities of organisations and investors and bring the issue of climate change into sharper focus.

As Dan Misleh told FaithInvest: "As we emerge from this pandemic and as we begin to ramp up the economy again, I think people are going to be looking to build back better, and use the technology and the knowhow we have to reduce the levels of pollution."


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