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Putting faith in renewable energy Amherst church upgrades to solar electricity

After spending more than $300,000 to purchase and install the solar panels and upgrade heating systems in the buildings to all-electric, the congregation will hold a dedication June 9 at 1 p.m.

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg and Rep. Ellen Story, along with consultants, contractors and vendors, are expected to participate in the ceremony at the 1066 South East St. site.

“This solar project is just one expression of this faith community’s deep care for God’s creation,” the Rev. Caroline Meyers said in a statement. “In addition to the financial and environmental benefits, I was deeply moved by the congregation’s concern that we move toward a more socially just form of energy generation and away from fossil fuels and all the attendant risks to our global brothers and sisters.”

Julie Marcus, a member of the church’s energy committee, said conservation efforts began five years ago when the church decided to become more sustainable in its operations and practices, with a capital campaign to improve the 1824 church building. The $500,000 in work included adding 9 inches of foam insulation, installing 34 energy-efficient windows and replacing light bulbs and fixtures.

After a 2009 rededication of the church, members agreed to pursue solar power.

“We decided to continue the process and decided to become a net zero (energy) facility,” Marcus said.

Marcus said this was possible in Massachusetts because of the state’s progressive energy policies, in part supported by local politicians like Rosenberg and Story, that have made renewable energy generation affordable for a church.

The church was ineligible for the tax incentives offered by the federal government, but was able to rely on two programs through the state. One is net metering, in which excess power is put back into the grid, and the other is the solar renewable energy credits that are purchased by utility companies.

Pioneer Valley Photovoltaic of Greenfield installed the panels.

Marcus said research she has done using data from Interfaith Power & Light, a group that tracks religious organizations’ response to global warming, shows that the church now has the second-largest solar system of any faith-based group in Massachusetts.

The church also hopes to join the Mount Vernon Unitarian Church in Virginia as a net-zero church.

Marcus said this will be determined over time to see how well the panels perform. “We won’t know for another year or two or three,” Marcus said.

But there are good signs already, she said, as the utility bill in April was 8 cents.

Even with this low bill, the cost savings aren’t the primary motivator, but are trumped by the environmental and social justice benefits, Marcus said.

“A big part of this is our taking responsibility for the generating of our own electricity,” Marcus said.

Marcus said that a 50-kilowatt system is large.

“This is a very ambitious project,” she said, observing that at her company’s New England Environmental headquarters has just a 39-kilowatt system.

The church, an open and affirming congregation with about 250 members, recently became a UCC Green Justice Congregation by demonstrating sustainable practices in all church activities.

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