Midtown Memphis church studies harnessing sunlight

Published November 9, 2012

By Jonathan Devin

Posted November 6, 2012 at 12:05 a.m., updated November 6, 2012 at 12:10 a.m.

Pastor Cheryl Cornish always knew her church would embrace the concept of going green. Now an unlikely source of renewable energy is rising on her church's horizon.

"I think there's deep concern, especially and rightfully among younger generations, about what kind of planet they will be inheriting," said Cornish. In October, the approximately 350-member congregation of First Congregational United Church of Christ voted to begin negotiating with companies to install solar panels on top of the church's sanctuary, making it the first church in West Tennessee to consider what is usually a cost-prohibitive project for nonprofits.

In the last few years the federal government has made solar panels more attractive to homeowners and businesses by offering substantial tax credits — as much as 30 percent of the cost — for those who purchase them.

But churches and nonprofits do not pay taxes, and therefore cannot receive that benefit. Even though the price of solar power systems has come down due to an increase in demand, it's still out of reach for most churches and nonprofits.

"Over the years this has come up from time to time," said Carla Peacher-Ryan, a 10-year member of First Congregational and also a member of the church's mission development and finance committees. "The first time anybody looked into it, it was cost-prohibitive. In the intervening years the cost of the systems has come down."

The church began talks with Lightwave Solar, a company based in Antioch, Tenn., near Nashville, which in addition to residential and commercial sales, helps nonprofits and churches finance solar power systems through investor companies.

Peter Calandruccio, director of Lightwave Solar's Memphis office, said that there are numerous options available once a company steps forward to partner with the church. What's more, Memphis is the perfect place to do it, he said.

"Tennessee gets more sunlight than most people think, and if you compare West, Middle and East Tennessee, West Tennessee and the Memphis area get more sunlight than Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga do," said Calandruccio. "That's based on how many hours per day qualify as accessible solar hours. Memphis gets 5.1 average solar hours per day."

In some cases, the investor company purchases the system and installs it on the church. The church leases the system for about 10 years and the company receives the tax credit. The church gets the benefit of a lower electricity bill. At the end of the lease, the church can purchase the system, which would last another 10 to 15 years.

A second option is that the church can simply lease its roof space to the investor company.

Peacher-Ryan said that all options are on the table. The church has explored partnering with a couple of investors already, but has not yet made a match. Their hope is to have a system in place before the end of the year so that they can take part in TVA's Generation Partners program, which pays an additional 12 cents on top of their regular retail rate.

It's still a costly prospect. Initially, the church looked at a large solar power system, which would cost about $250,000 and would generate 50 kilowatt hours of electricity.

Peacher-Ryan said the church most likely wouldn't make its investment back for quite some time, but that didn't seem to faze the congregation.

"Initially our main interest is doing it for the good of the Earth," said Peacher-Ryan. "We also have a lot of roof space. Not every roof is a good place to put a solar panel, but ours are wonderful.

"The roof is large and south-facing, and there aren't any trees around it. But if you look at this from a financial perspective, even with the TVA program, we would not make a return on our investment until about the 20-year point."

But Julia Hicks, the church's director of mission, said solar power falls in line with the church's other environmental initiatives, namely lowering utility payments on the 83,000 square-foot church.

"We use a lot of energy at our church," said Hicks, who has been a member for 24 years and on staff for 11. "On a good month we're in the $4,000s. In a bad month, we can climb up to $8,000 or $9,000.

The church replaced all its incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents and added motion sensors in hallways and bathrooms. This summer, AmeriCorps volunteers began chopping up portions of the church's parking lot to turn into green space.

The Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market meets there on Saturdays, and one corner of the church's property houses the city's Midtown recycling drop-off. Most recently, the church bought three beehives to support its food ministry.

The church is also actively exploring the possibility of adding a windmill to replace a faulty basement water pump. Cornish and her husband, Mark Allen, have already purchased a solar system for their home, which will soon be installed.

Inside, the church added a "Season of Creation" to its liturgical calendar. This is the third year the church has celebrated the season through art work in the sanctuary. The art installation features a forest of trees painted on fabric hanging from the ceiling and a towering, grid-like structure with paintings of leaves.

"God calls us to respect life," said Cornish. "We're concerned with taking care of the poor, taking care of the marginalized, and yet we live in a world where the Earth itself has become marginalized by our neglect.

"Promoting solar power, which is renewable, shows respect for the Earth that God gave us. In my book, it's a way of living responsibly in covenant with the world that's been entrusted to us."

For now, it's a matter of waiting for an investor to step forward, but Peacher-Ryan said even if that doesn't happen, the church may consider buying a smaller system on its own.

"We've got a million decisions to make," said Hicks.