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Sunny days power parishes

First slide

Jesus tells his disciples to proclaim his words from the housetops, said Father Robert C. Cilinski. The pastor of Church of the Nativity in Burke thinks the sun-absorbing equipment recently installed on the roof of his church is doing just that. “Our solar panels are on the rooftop shouting the wisdom of ‘Laudato Si,’ the social teaching of the church,” he said. 

In 2019, Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington was the first parish in the diocese to have solar panels installed, and this year three parishes are following suit: Nativity, St. Bernadette Church in Springfield and St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church. 


Father Cilinksi said he and the Nativity community went solar to protect the environment and save the parish money. “We’re told that in the next 20 years, it will eliminate 7,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide, produce 91,000 kilowatts of electricity and save about $200,000,” said Father Cilinski. “For us, not only was saving money a factor, but really we did it for the prophetic witness that it provides. It’s a response to Pope Francis, who asked us to care for our common home.”

Catholic Energies, a service of the Catholic Climate Covenant, helped all three parishes through the process. The group starts by examining several factors, such as a parish’s energy consumption and what the utility company charges them, to see if switching to solar would help their bottom line. “A lot of variables go into whether renewable energy and energy efficiency makes financial sense for a Catholic organization, and it’s our job to help them figure that out so that they can make fully informed decisions,” said Page Gravely, Catholic Energies’ head of client services. 

Parishes have an option to get solar panels installed with no upfront costs through a power purchase agreement. “With a diocese-approved power purchase agreement, we go out and find the investor who will pay for that entire installed solar project. Solar is fed into Dominion’s grid and Dominion feeds the power to the building,” said Gravely.  “The power purchase agreement defines the rate for the solar power and the overall goal is that rate is lower than what (the parish) was paying Dominion. Dominion credits their bills for the solar generated.” Through the agreement, parishes can get power- and cost-saving LED lighting retrofits as well.

Using renewable energy and making church buildings more energy efficient will make a difference in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, said Gravely. “About a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from buildings,” he said. “(With solar), clean energy is now being fed back into the energy grid and they’re utilizing that clean energy directly at the parish level, displacing what they were consuming — such as power from a coal plant.”

After hearing about Catholic Energies at a conference last year, Father Donald J. Rooney, pastor of St. Bernadette, was ready to see if solar would work for his parish. “I think we all have to start living more sustainably,” he said. “We have an obligation to try to do what we can to stop consuming so much energy and resources.”

Over the next 20 years, St. Bernadette will save $325,000 in utility costs, and at the end of that period the parish will have the option to purchase the panels for a very low cost. They should last for another 10 to 30 years, said Rick Caporali, pastoral associate. “Which means free energy for 30 years,” said Father Rooney.

“It’s worthwhile to teach people the need to care for creation,” said Caporali. “This is just the right thing to do.”


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020