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For saving, churches turning to the sun

Power-purchase agreements make good business sense for solar providers and parishes


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Solar panels behind Our Lady of Good Counsel, in Ewing. Solis Partners has found churches a good partner for power-purchase agreements, since they tend to be more stable than businesses and tend to be interested in environmental stewardship.
Solar panels behind Our Lady of Good Counsel, in Ewing. Solis Partners has found churches a good partner for power-purchase agreements, since they tend to be more stable than businesses and tend to be interested in environmental stewardship. - (AARON HOUSTON)

Solar executives and church leaders agree: stewardship makes good business sense.

Solis Partners co-founder Jamie Hahn said churches are a small, but growing niche, of clients for solar companies, who install such energy systems through power-purchase agreements. Those agreements are third-party arrangements in which the host customer purchases solar service from a provider, rather than buying the system itself.

"We're taking the complexities out of solar and simplifying it, so these entities can take advantage of solar," Hahn said.

It made sense at The Church of the Resurrection, where the Rev. David Stachurski was searching for energy savings that would free up parish finances to better enable the Delran church to fulfill its mission. Hahn saw an opportunity for his Manasquan-based provider of solar systems.

Monsignor Ralph Stansley and Jamie Hahn inside Our Lady of Good Counsel, in Ewing, where Solis Partners recently installed a solar system.

The pair forged a deal, one of five arrangements Solis has performed for Trenton-area churches since 2011. GeoGenix, an Old Bridge solar provider, has done two projects for churches since last summer.

Churches often can't afford the upfront costs of installing a solar system alone and, as tax-exempt entities, are not able to take advantage of tax breaks favoring solar development. In the power-purchase agreement, "all the risk is taken by developers," Hahn said.

The promise of lower operating costs for the host customer, who is already spared upfront costs, helps foster such partnerships, Hahn said. Such deals make sense for nonprofits in general, but Hahn said churches are particularly good candidates.

This is especially true in suburban areas with open land that can fit solar systems — something less practical in urban environments. Hahn said churches are a good bet to be operating in 15 to 20 years, the length of typical power-purchase agreements, while a private business may fail. Plus, Hahn said, the idea of stewardship appeals to religious institutions.

Stachurski agrees. He said he had been exploring the idea since 2008, when he wrote to then-Bishop John Smith about embracing solar technology.

"Obviously it's a financial savings for the parish, which means good stewardship," said Stucharski, who said he's long been interested in the environmental benefits of renewable energy. "It's also stewardship of creation."

Hahn said such arrangements make sense for developers, because they can take advantage of a 30 percent federal solar investment tax credit. Other federal and state policy incentives apply, such as a five-year accelerated appreciation benefit. The total value of these incentives can offset about 52 percent of project cost, Hahn said.

Developers profit by earning solar renewable energy certificates, or SRECS, that can be sold to utility companies. The provider also earns income by selling solar-generated electricity to the customer at rates less expensive and volatile than conventional electricity.

At Church of the Resurrection, solar power has been in operation since October at two main facilities, a church that seats about 500 and an adjoining parish center. Stachurski estimated the parish's electric bill last year was $38,000 for both buildings. The parish is projecting an annual savings of about 40 percent this year.

In addition, Solis Partners has installed solar systems at Our Lady of Good Counsel, in Ewing; Church of the Assumption, in Wrightstown; St. Theresa's Church, in Little Egg Harbor; and St. Mary's Church, in Colts Neck — all Catholic churches in the Diocese of Trenton.

Project costs range between about $300,000 and $500,000, Hahn said. The firm expects a return on assets of between 8 percent and 11 percent.

GeoGenix's recent projects include Abundant Life Christian Center, in the Dayton section of South Brunswick, a $1 million dollar job, and the Calvary Tabernacle of Cranford, an estimated $800,000 job. The Old Bridge firm teamed with finance partner Hudson Solar.

Gaurav Naik, a principal with GeoGenix, said his firm never thought to market its services directly to churches, but is finding it to be an attractive niche.

"We want to get the word out that it makes sense for churches to go solar," Naik said.

Naik said both projects were completed after little negotiation. Officials from both churches were receptive and quickly obtained internal approvals from church boards, he said.

"Savings are the main motivator," Naik said. "Of course, so is the goodwill it gets from the members of the church. They see the church is doing the right thing by the environment."

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