Story by Sara Carbone, CollectiveSun Content Marketing Manager
Here at CollectiveSun we love celebrating nonprofits making an impact in their communities! We are always so inspired by these organizations that demonstrate leadership and embrace solar. These bold actions promote sustainability, both for the planet and for the bottom line.
The Nonprofit Solar Spotlight is our monthly series celebrating the nonprofits we work with who choose to go solar in order to achieve financial and environmental sustainability for their organization. So far this year we have highlighted the stories of four nonprofits we partnered with in their journey to go solar. They were Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Massachusetts, California based Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and the Museum of Photographic Arts, and New Milford United Methodist Church in Connecticut. This month, we are proud to feature St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Weston, Massachusetts as our fifth nonprofit.
We recently interviewed Jim McDaniel, parishioner and Property Committee member at St. Peters, who shared the congregation’s focus, the process of going solar, the impact it had on their community and the advantages of working with CollectiveSun.
Please tell us about St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
St Peter’s congregation was formed in Weston in 1865, and we became a formal parish in 1913. Our current building, a beautiful large church building and parish hall, was built in 1959 at the height of the baby boom. As a church we’re obviously very focused on providing a place of worship as well as pastoral care for our congregation. But St. Peters has also had a historical focus on outreach. We focus on partnering with organizations that address issues like homelessness and affordable housing, hunger, and education. It’s been a longstanding priority for St Peter’s and a very important part of our identity.
How is St. Peter’s connected to the greater Weston community?
While we have a lot of parishioners from Weston, we also draw parishioners from other neighboring communities, particularly Wayland. Weston is a fairly affluent community, but we still try to provide support for both for our own parishioners and other groups. We tend to be involved with locally based organizations. A lot of the outreach that we do is with organizations that are based in Waltham, another adjacent community with a substantial immigrant population. There’s also a big emphasis on local interfaith cooperation, something that has been a long-standing priority for St. Peter’s. We were a founder of the Weston Wayland Interfaith Action Group, a partnership of Jews, Christians, Muslims and Baha’is.
What sparked St. Peter’s Episcopal Church’s interest in renewable energy and sustainability?
The church building and parish hall had served their purpose for 50 plus years with relatively few alterations. When we got to the 50-year mark in 2009, there was a growing list of maintenance items that needed to be attended to. So, we launched a capital campaign during which we raised money to implement the priorities that had been identified by the parish. Members of the parish made it clear that they thought it was important to look into improving the energy efficiency of the building and reducing our carbon footprint.
These were consistent with the priorities of the Episcopal Diocese in Massachusetts which has been a forceful advocate on issues of climate change. I have to give the Diocese a lot of credit for raising everyone’s awareness about issues of climate change and that churches should be doing something about it. You really can’t be a lay leader in any Episcopal church in Massachusetts without getting lots of information about the programs that the Diocese has been instituting to address climate change.
As a result, we incorporated some sustainability improvements into what we did with the raised capital. We learned that not only could we spend our own money on that but that there was funding available through the Diocese for some of these projects to augment what we had raised from our own congregation. One of the requirements of applying for a grant through the Diocese was sending some people to a workshop on energy efficiency. I was one of the people on our property committee that attended a workshop where we were first introduced to Massachusetts Interfaith Power and Light. MassIPL has been doing work on energy efficiency and other environmentally related issues with a number of denominations in Massachusetts.
Our first step was to replace around 50 drafty old windows in our parish house with new energy efficient ones and upgrade the insulation throughout that building. We completed that first phase of work in 2017. What really triggered our interest in the possibility of installing solar is when we purchased a new residence for our rector in 2018. The house we purchased had solar panels already installed on the roof. At first, we simply thought it was kind of nice to have them from a social responsibility point of view, but as time went on we realized that they were generating cash flow for the church. It was a real eye opener to see that we were zeroing out our electricity costs for the house, generating net metering credits that the utility agreed to apply to the church’s electricity bill, and selling the renewable energy credits for cash and getting a check every quarter.
With all of these positive aspects about having solar at the rectory, we started looking at the much larger roof of our church building and seriously considering putting solar panels on it. We still had some funds left over from our capital campaign and used those to replace the old roof on the main church building in late 2018. Then we started researching solar providers.
“ We need to find a path to sustainability as a faith community. That’s the challenge for a lot of churches, religious organizations and nonprofits. Solar will certainly help us. We’ve compared going solar to having a new pledging family join our parish who is committed to making a substantial financial contribution over the next 25 years. And that’s really a positive. ”
How did you hear about CollectiveSun?
MassIPL put us in touch with Resonant Energy who had a webinar in March 2020 with a company they partnered with called CollectiveSun. The webinar was really helpful. They walked through the different models for solar panel ownership for nonprofits. But the real revelation for us was how CollectiveSun could utilize the federal tax credits for the project and share a portion of that benefit with us to reduce the overall cost.
What motivated you to pursue the CollectiveSun ownership model?
It became clear for us that the hybrid model of ownership that was possible through CollectiveSun was really going to maximize what we were trying to do because it would allow us to reduce the cost of the project and maximize the cash flow, something virtually every church these days is looking for. This was also during the early and very scary stages of the pandemic when we —and every other church – were worried about whether we’d be able to survive. Here was a model that offered us the possibility to create a positive cash flow while addressing climate change in a very concrete way. All these things made CollectiveSun appealing to St. Peters.
What aspect or outcome of solar energy are you most excited about?
One of the things that we decided on early in the process was to keep our vestry – which is our lay governing board — informed as we were developing proposals, so that we didn’t just come to them after doing all the due diligence asking them to simply trust us and go with what we recommended. We gave several presentations along the way, emphasizing that we’d be reducing our carbon footprint. We used the analogy that the carbon savings we would achieve by installing these panels would be the equivalent of preserving 34 acres of forests. Weston has a lot of conservation land, and that’s a very big priority for the community. We also emphasized that we’d not only reduce the church’s expenses by eliminating our electricity costs, but we would also increase the church’s income through the sale of our renewable energy credits and net metering credits.
We kept the vestry informed throughout the project as the details were fine-tuned. Resonant provided us with very good financial modeling which was quite helpful since we have some sophisticated people on our vestry who have been involved in business, finance and technology for many years. We knew we’d be asked detailed questions by them, and it was really great that we had all of the information necessary to answer those questions.
We understand you are doing something very special with the design of your solar project. Could you tell us this and what motivated the community focus?
One of the really great things that came out of this project was that we saw the benefit of maximizing the panels on our roof. When we went into this whole project we were initially thinking that we would only put a sufficient number of panels on the roof of the church to cover the church’s electricity needs. But we learned that if we generated more electricity than what we needed we would have net metering credits which we could sell to another entity.
This was an important factor in our decision to go solar and in convincing the whole parish that this was an economically and environmentally desirable project. Resonant found another faith community, Yusuf Mosque in Brighton, that was interested in going green but didn’t have the roof space to put panels on their own roof. They would purchase the net metering credits at a discount so they’d enjoy the benefits of buying less expensive electricity that is solar generated. We were thrilled because that really met another priority of the parish, which is to foster interfaith cooperation.
We had a complication due to the fact that we were already generating electricity at our rectory and were applying those net metering credits to the church’s bill. Those net metering credits would become worthless once we zeroed out the church’s electricity bill with the church’s own panels. So we asked Resonant about what we could do with the net metering credits from the rectory, and they helped us sell the credits from both locations to Yusuf Mosque. So, in fact, we’d have two generating sites, one in Weston on the church and one in nearby Wayland on our rector’s residence. By folding the rectory into the full model, we would increase our cash flow by over $1000 a year.
We’re in the process of organizing a joint gathering of St. Peter’s and Yusuf Mosque to celebrate the initiation of the panels after they’re completed. We’re hoping to generate some local press coverage, and we might even get some coverage from the National Episcopal Church.
How do you see your decision to go solar impacting your organization and community?
St. Peters is on a very busy secondary highway in Massachusetts, Route 20, which has a large volume of traffic for both the morning and evening commute. As people drive by St. Peters, they will see a solar array on our roof. It’s important for us to have that as an example of our commitment to environmental stewardship. Also, if somebody sees that and maybe starts thinking about solar for their own house, business or organization, we feel that’s a kind of environmental evangelism. We hope our prominent location will help the solar panels impact our community and other communities that have people driving by our church, every day throughout the year.
What went into making the decision about how to fund the project?
When we looked at how to fund the St. Peter’s portion of the project we had a decision to make: would we borrow money to pay for our portion of it, and if so, from whom and on what terms? Resonant had told us we could borrow it from the Diocese of Massachusetts, which had funding available. We looked at models that showed the advantages and disadvantages of this, including the interest rate that they would charge and what it would do to our cash flow over the course of the loan. We also looked at our anticipated rate of return if St. Peter’s self-funded out of our own capital or investments.
We were able to go to the vestry and show what it would look like if we borrowed from the Diocese at a very favorable interest rate but with an impact on our cash flow vs. taking the money out of our own investments with a very favorable rate of return compared with what we would expect to earn in the market on those same investments. It ultimately allowed the vestry to decide to self-fund. We could characterize this as a green investment by St. Peter’s. So not only was it going to be favorable from a return point of view, but it was using our investment funds in a socially responsible way.
What parts about working with CollectiveSun have you enjoyed the most?
I would say we appreciate the fact that CollectiveSun is doing what they’re doing. It makes so much sense to try to harness the federal tax credits for nonprofits, and they’re making that possible. In their webinars and in their materials, they were very transparent about what they are about and how they operate and how they enlist tax equity investors to make this possible. CollectiveSun was very professional, and the Solar Power Agreement that they served up was very professionally done. That whole process worked very smoothly, so they have been a very good partner, and we look forward to working with them going forward.
What are some of the things you’ve learned along the way?
One big thing that we learned out of this is that we could do well by doing good. We can generate a cash flow for the parish and satisfy both our environmental responsibilities and our organizational responsibilities through this single project. The modeling showed us that if we maximize the panels on our roof, we would be maximizing both our environmental and economic sustainability.
Looking forward, what are your goals for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and how will solar play a role in achieving those goals?
We need to find a path to sustainability as a faith community. That’s the challenge for a lot of churches, religious organizations and nonprofits. Solar will certainly help us. We’ve compared going solar to having a new pledging family join our parish who is committed to making a substantial financial contribution over the next 25 years. And that’s really a positive.
We also have to find ways to show that we are supporting goals beyond ourselves, such as addressing environmental concerns. Doing concrete things to address climate change is a very important way to tell the broader community that we are an organization that cares. Solar is something we’re doing in our community to really address an enormously important issue. We’re doing it in a visible way and in a way that fosters interfaith cooperation. Those are all ways that this project is advancing our larger goals.
I can say without hesitancy that installing solar has been one of the most popular things that has happened at St. Peter’s in a very long time. The feedback throughout the parish is uniformly positive. People are excited and proud that St. Peters is making this move. It will help give us direction and build enthusiasm around addressing other issues, whether they’re related to climate or interfaith issues.
Any advice for other nonprofits considering solar?
For people who are thinking about doing this, it might be helpful to know that this was a project that really got going in the midst of the pandemic and was brought to a conclusion during the pandemic. If we can do it under those circumstances, you can do it under any circumstances. Resonant and CollectiveSun were able to be responsive at all times. Our solar installer put panels on the roof and did all the structural due diligence and got all of the approvals from the town and the utility. All of this was accomplished during the pandemic, which was a testament to the whole team.
It was also a very good way for all of us to feel constructively engaged during what was otherwise a very discouraging period of time. It’s a doable project and we completed it under difficult circumstances, much to our delight.
About St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
St. Peter’s is an Episcopal church that serves the communities of Weston, Wayland, and other local neighborhoods. By God’s grace, we strive to be an inclusive community that invites and supports each person to see Christ in every human being and to live by Jesus’ example, through worship, education, parish life, and outreach.
Learn more about St. Peter’s!
About Jim McDaniel
Jim McDaniel is Senior Counsel at the Boston law firm of Choate, Hall & Stewart, where he has practiced since 1978 specializing in corporate finance, securities law and corporate governance. He has served on Choate’s Management Committee and as Chair of its Business Department.
Jim has also been significantly involved with non-profits and currently serves as Chairman of the Board of HopeWell Inc., the largest non-profit provider of foster care services in Massachusetts and Connecticut; member (and former Chairman) of the Board of Advisors of MassGeneral Hospital for Children; and a past Senior Warden of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, where he now chairs its Property Committee.
Jim and his wife live in Weston, Massachusetts. Jim is a graduate of Stanford University and of Harvard Law School, where he was the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard Environmental Law Review. When Jim is not rooting for the local sports teams, he likes to hike, kayak, read, go birding, explore genealogy and serve as his wife’s Triathlon Sherpa.
If you are a Nonprofit organization interested in learning more about solar, or are looking to launch a solar project with a Nonprofit organization, please contact our VP of Sales, Matt Brennan who can answer any of your questions.
Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-838-7363.