An Orthodox Parish Turns to Solar Power

by Catherine Frye

Down through the centuries Orthodox Christians have fed the hungry, provided shelter for the homeless and cared for those who have need. While these traditional ministries are forever important, a deteriorating environment may threaten the ability of mankind to sustain life as we know it. Caring for the environment now becomes an additional way that we care for our neighbors – those near us in our communities as well as those in future generations.

If we are going to be responsible stewards of God’s creation, as the Scriptures and the Fathers command, we have to reach into our holy Orthodox tradition and discern how the principles in our faith address a variety of new predicaments. Solar power is one way that we can do this. Like “new wine out of old wineskins,” clean solar power allows us to fuel our needs for energy without harming our neighbors. Fr. Lawrence Margitich, pastor at Protection of the Holy Virgin-St. Seraphim of Sarov Church, a parish of the Diocese of the West for the Orthodox Church in America, describes how his parish addressed its need for energy.

“Almost every Church community, particularly small Orthodox parishes,” he says, “struggles to balance expenses and income. A large part of annual expenses are the utilities, the costs of gas and electricity. Parishes in cold climates obviously have a problem with this expense.

“Here in Santa Rosa, California, we felt that utility costs, even in our temperate climate, were too much. We worried about this aspect of the yearly budget for years, but felt helpless. Not only did we have this large expense, but we knew that burning oil and gas contribute to pollution.

“Thanks to the providence and good will of God, a solution came to us to solve these worries. We have in our parish community a chemical engineer, Christopher Frye, whose company, Alternative Energy, installs electrical solar panels. “Chris came to me with the idea that the parish could install solar panels to supply its electrical needs. He explained that with a solar electrical system, our parish would use renewable green energy, rather than energy from fossil fuel pollutants.

“It quickly became clear to me and to members of the Parish Council that by using clean solar power, our parish would not only practice Orthodoxy in our faith, worship, and relationships with God and man, but also in our relationships to the world. We would have an environmental Orthopraxy!

“It is fitting then that the Orthodox Church take the lead in our community by setting an example that will show the way for society. Solar energy turned out to be a wonderful way to accomplish this. We live in a culture that is excessively dependent upon hydrocarbon resources, primarily petroleum. By replacing hydrocarbons with photovoltaics, we are reducing greenhouse emissions and other toxics that pollute the air and water.”

Parishioners were enthused with idea. Laurel Counts, parish bookkeeper, says, “I thought it was a great idea from the beginning. Financially, ecologically, economically, also spiritually, this was the right choice.”

Seraphim Strobel, a petroleum exploration engineer, observed that with the parish using solar power, our parish will operate in ways that honor God by respecting what He has created.

Fr. Lawrence, reflecting further, added, “Isn’t it true, we thought, that any Orthodox parish or monastery ought to tend its landscape and grounds in order to make it beautiful, to shape it into a garden, as a humble icon of God’s Paradise? You may ask, ‘But are solar panels beautiful?’ I would say yes. “For some people four rows of solar panels are not the most beautiful sight to see, although they do occupy a portion of our parish’s five acres that is not all that visible. But for others, our solar panels represent a clear commitment to avoiding fossil fuels.

“In that sense, it is a pleasure to see these beautiful technological components in our field. Had we not enough ground area, the panels could easily have been mounted on the roof.

“The savings gained by using green energy are substantial – over thirty years we expect to save $500,000 in utility expense. That figure is calculated using current costs, though it is likely that natural gas prices will rise in the years to come.” “This was a wise, long term decision for our parish,” added Laurel Counts, “but each parish should investigate the short term expenses. What struck me afterwards about our installation of solar power is that it gave me a surprising sense of greater integrity. That makes me feel very good about our parish.”

Seraphim Strobel added, “The sun will shine until the end of days, but as a petroleum exploration engineer, I know that petroleum resources will be exhausted within the lifetime of our grandchildren. One of the most loving things that we can do for them and for generations still to come is to develop these alternative energy resources now.”

Should your parish install solar power?

Chris Frye, owner of Alternative Energy, suggests that if a parish is interested in installing solar power, it should start by appointing a technically-qualified church member to serve as a coordinator. The coordinator can contact several qualified companies to receive bids. Ask the bidders if some tasks can be conducted by parishioners which could lower their price. At St. Seraphim’s, trenching and other non-technical tasks were performed by church members. This reduced the installation costs substantially.

Let the various bidders suggest sizes, design, placement and types of equipment. With any con- tractor check references, state records, and ask to see other solar installations that they have installed in your area.

Have the last twelve utility bills available for each bidder to review so they can quote a system appropriate for your parish energy needs. If future expansion is planned, this should be communicated to the bidders. Evaluate the bids on price and technical quality. As with all trades, the cheapest bid may not be the most cost-effective bid. There are some very creative financing projects suitable for church non-profits. Some programs may require only a small payment followed by an agreement to purchase the power generated by the solar panels.

Solar panels can be mounted on either roofs or the ground. They can form a roof for parking structures, car ports, patio covers or arbors. Any new structures being built on church properties can have solar panels designed into them at the architectural stage resulting in an attractive and efficient installation.

Along with installing solar panels an evaluation of existing appliances should be considered. At St. Seraphim we were able to install an excess of solar panels so changing from gas-fired to electric-powered appliances makes economic sense. Water heating, space-heating and some cooking can be done with electrical appliances thus reducing your natural gas or propane costs.

At St. Seraphim, we cover 100 percent of our electric bill, and this save us over $1,000 per month. We hope to further reduce our natural gas bill by replacing a boiler used for radiant heating with an electric unit. Additionally, as other water heaters reach the end of their useful life they will be replaced with electric units. Even with a planned expansion of the parish hall, we expect our electric demand to be met with our solar array.

Although solar power is becoming more common, local media may provide some publicity should a church install solar panels. For an Orthodox parish, installing solar panels can call peoples’ attention to what is usually the low-key presence most Orthodox churches have within a community.

Being good stewards of the planet is clearly mandated in Holy Scripture. As we use systems that are benign and harmless in their impact upon the larger community, we serve God by restraining from the harm which commercial electricity does to our neighbors and all the earth.

Catherine Frye is a member of St. Seraphim’s Orthodox Church (OCA) in Santa Rosa, California and President of Alternative Energy. See her website at http://www.SolarSonoma.com. If your parish needs additional help in turning to solar power, contact the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. This organization is endorsed by the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America and offers parishes and individuals information and materials on an Orthodox view of environmental issues. Write them at The Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration, 887 Sebastopol Road, Suite A, Santa Rosa, CA 95407. E-mail: fredkrueger@email.com. Membership is $25 per year.

In Communion number 44 / Winter 2007