Nonprofit Solar Spotlight: Meet Congregation Shaarei Tefillah

Story by Sara Carbone, CollectiveSun Content Marketing Manager

At CollectiveSun we put nonprofits front and center, given that the work they do is so vital for so many communities across the country. We believe that it is extremely important for these organizations to operate in a manner that is financially sustainable. Going solar is an important step in that process. We are very proud of the fact that over the past four years we’ve partnered with over 140 nonprofits across 19 states to support their renewable energy goals. 

In this new monthly series, Nonprofit Solar Spotlight, we tell the stories of nonprofit clean energy champions and their commitment to financial and environmental sustainability. These community-centric organizations have embraced solar and transformed their organizations.  Their stories demonstrate the leadership role that nonprofits can take to lower operating expenses and support a cleaner environment.

Our first featured nonprofit is Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue located in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. They worked with CollectiveSun to go solar between 2019 and 2020 and installed a 70.18 kW system that is projected to save them $23,000 annually.

We spoke with 20 year congregant and former president, Michael Rubin. He discussed Shaarei Tefillah’s mission, why they went solar and what it was like to work with CollectiveSun.

Can you share the story behind Congregation Shaarei Tefillah?

Religious institutions vary in their degree of engagement with their local community, civic institutions, and the greater society. At our synagogue, we proudly aspire toward greater engagement and addressing larger social concerns. We inherited this worldview from our founders. Shaarei Tefillah has been around for a while, more than 37 years at this point. Many of our founding generation were children of the 60s who thought of themselves as people who should change the world. I believe our solar project is in keeping with this spirit. Think globally and act locally!

What sparked Congregation Shaarei Tefillah’s interest in renewable energy and sustainability?

Prior to my coming on as president, a committee had been formed to explore how green the congregation could be. They looked at things like disposables and moved to purchase, utilize and process various types of compostable plates and utensils and such. Then when I became president, I saw an opportunity to take advantage of various Commonwealth subsidies and good deals that were consistent with our interest in sustainability. So I led the effort to change out all of our lighting to LED around four or five years ago, which was a fairly big job for our contractor. The LEDs had to be installed in some very high ceilings and were only accessible by electronic lifts, which were blocked by fixed pews. That project was our first really big infrastructure change. That investment had a payback period of something like a year and a half to two years. It was virtually immediate, and it was a no brainer. 

After that a congregant who was involved with an organization called the Jewish Climate Action Network learned about various options for what we could do on the energy front, specifically with solar. He talked to me about it, and I started to ask around about whether solar could make sense for us. Luckily we have an HVAC engineer in our membership who knows a good deal about energy options. He explained how the technology of solar panels has really changed a great deal over the past few years. It really started to look like a very good investment and, obviously, would make a positive impact and important statement about our congregation’s values. So that got us started on the solar front.

It was the classic combination of being aware of our impact on the environment and our values around sustainability plus what made sense from a financial perspective, particularly given the various subsidies that allow for payback periods.

“Our initial interest in working with CollectiveSun began with the financial benefits. However, once engaged, we saw there were many additional benefits about working with them.”

Why Collective Sun? What moved you to work with us?

As a nonprofit we obviously wanted to maximize whatever benefits we could around subsidies and the financials in order to make the payback period work for us. We heard about CollectiveSun through one of the contractors that we engaged to spec out the deployment. Our initial interest in working with them began with the financial benefits. However, once engaged, we saw there were many additional benefits about working with CollectiveSun. First, they do a fabulous job of overseeing their contractors. They’re quite demanding of contractors in terms of understanding precisely how the job will be implemented, the ongoing maintenance involved, and assessing whether the contractors’ experience with solar has been sufficient. 

Now, this was all pretty much behind the scenes for us. We didn’t have to worry about it. But I certainly heard through our chosen contractor that he had to do a lot of work with regards to due diligence to make sure he was going to do the kind of job that was appropriate. That was definitely a benefit of working with CollectiveSun, because we’re a bunch of lay volunteers with some degree of knowledge, but nothing near the expertise displayed by CollectiveSun.

CollectiveSun was fantastic. They were more than happy to talk with us, to put the right people in contact with us in order to make us feel comfortable with how things worked. Very nice people and interested in helping. 

Is there anything that you learned about renewables or otherwise during this process? 

To a certain extent we were extremely lucky because our building is only about 10 years old. It’s not an old building so there wasn’t a lot of concern about whether or not the infrastructure could handle the weight of a solar system or, from a complexity standpoint, the electricity. So, we were lucky in that regard. Also, we were lucky because a lot of our roof is flat so it’s just a perfect setting for the deployment of solar panels.

These things made it much simpler and more obvious for us when looking at the probability that solar would work for us. So those are a couple of key points. One thing that we did learn, that I think others could learn from as well, is that some contractors are interested and willing to do the measurements in order to come up with the projections about payback and so forth. They are willing to actually go up on the roof and collect the data. Some contractors are not. Those contractors, by and large, will use Google Earth, and other satellite images to do a good enough job for the initial projections that have to be made.

I found it very important that someone go up on the roof and take a look around, because the details matter. There are setback issues, issues of access. There are a variety of issues regarding surrounding structures or trees, or what have you, that can have an impact on the deployment plan and ultimately, your projections about the payback period. No one wants surprises about this. So this is a key differentiator. We went with a contractor that did that and specifically did not go with someone else who looked very good because they refused to go up on the roof.

How do you think going solar will impact your congregation and, more broadly, your community?

Our area has lots of homes that have solar panels deployed, so we are not early adopters leading the charge. We are firmly within the mass adoption of solar in our community here in Newton. Having said that, I will say that we are having a positive influence on our congregants in that they are looking to start adopting solar for their own residences. I’ve had multiple people approach me to see what we learned in order to leverage that information for their own homes.

Beyond that, there are several other institutions in the area, two institutions that we have a sort of loose affiliation with, that our contractor said have been positively influenced to start moving ahead on solar because of what we did. Newton, as a city, addresses issues of sustainability, especially around electricity. It’s very much at the forefront. The past two years, our mayor has negotiated a citywide contract for electricity that will enable us to go 100% renewable around electricity. That’s a choice that people can make. The default I think right now is about 80% renewable for the town electric contract. So with regards to residences and institutions and from a municipal perspective, issues of sustainability and renewables are very much at the forefront. And so our organization is consistent with that.

What are the goals for Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, and what role will solar play in those goals?

Well, right now we are not in the building which is extremely sad. In general, the lights are off in our building. So it’s hard to really talk about power because we’re not using much. The solar system is active all the time so there’s a little bit of irony here about the sun and the solar panels. They don’t care about a pandemic. They just work anyway, and as a result of subsidies we continue to get checks because of the net energy being produced. 

Our solar system was projected to generate about 85-90% of our power needs, but because we have no power needs right now we are making more money than we would be otherwise. And right now the solar system is not costing us anything because we’re not using any power. So there’s a bit of melancholy about the fact that we’re not taking up any power. On the other hand, we’re generating power in a sustainable fashion, and we’re proud of that. 

Anything else you want to add?

I would say that going solar was a no brainer. It wasn’t easy because there were lots of details, but it was an easy decision to make. There wasn’t much difficulty about it from a financial standpoint. It wasn’t as if the congregation had to make this gut wrenching decision about it. We weren’t spending on a project that has no payback. Instead, we got to have our cake and eat it too. We get to be sustainable. We get to exercise our values and our ideals and at the same time have a financial payback. That makes sense for the congregation. Hopefully that’s the case for others that are out there.

At the end of the day, it just made a huge amount of sense for us. Congregation Shaarei Tefillah’s solar project was installed by 621 Energy in Concord, MA.

About Congregation Shaarei Tefillah

Congregation Shaarei Tefillah is a Modern Orthodox synagogue located in beautiful Newton Centre, Massachusetts, in the greater Boston area. Their active and energetic shul aspires to provide an inclusive, friendly, and participatory atmosphere conducive to personal religious growth through Tefillah, Torah study, Chesed, Tzedek, Ahavat Yisrael, and building a supportive community of values and meaning. As our Sages taught us so long ago: The world stands on three things: Torah, Avodah, uGemilut Chasadim. At Shaarei, we too stand on — and just as importantly, they stand for — these three foundational pillars.

About Michael Rubin

Michael Rubin is a veteran high-tech industry executive who has lived in Newton and been a member of Cong. Shaarei Tefillah for the past twenty years. He has been on multiple synagogue committees and has served as the synagogue’s treasurer and congregational president.

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