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How this Tucson church made its solar microgrid financially feasible

Resiliency has become an important word for a lot of entities — from cities and states to businesses and other organizations.

In the area of energy, some companies and nonprofits are taking matters into their own hands — installing solar panels and battery storage units.

That’s the case for one Tucson church, which created its own microgrid. But the motivation for Shalom Mennonite Fellowship went beyond reliability and cost.

Andrew Blok profiled the church; he’s a reporter for CNET. He joined The Show to talk about what he found and the concept of "creation care."

MARK BRODIE: Some church leaders talked about doing this out of a sense of something called creation care. What does that concept refer to?

ANDREW BLOK: Yeah. So this was the the first thing that got brought up when I asked them why they went solar. And as far as I understand it, it is an ethic of caring for the earth in the face of, you know, environmental degradation and climate change, sort of born out of religious conviction that, you know, leads them to you know, take actions like installing solar panels.

BRODIE: So as you write, they were not necessarily just doing this to save money, right? For cost savings.

BLOK: Right. Duane, the man I talked to church member who installed and designed the system there, said that they're probably going to pay off the system with savings,, through 25 years, which is about the useful, lifetime of a solar system.

BRODIE: So that essentially makes it a break even. Because if, at that point they have to get new solar panels, they're just paying for those again, right?

BLOK: Yes, that's what they're expecting. 

BRODIE: So, what did they tell you about what they actually did? And and like what the thought process was in thinking about wanting to take these steps?

BLOK: Yeah. So, when it came specifically to solar panels, they looked at it and for a few reasons, it didn't make financial sense. They said they weren't doing this strictly for financial reasons, but it needed to make at least some sense. And a couple of things that were working against them is this fee that, their utility charges based on the class of customer that they are and whether how it's calculated if you have or don't have solar panels. That fee was gonna go up about 35 or $40 a month and that was going to make the solar panels sort of financially unfeasible. So, what they did to make it financially feasible is combine their electric service with the church building with another building they own next door. It's this house that's currently housing a church family. And this does a couple of things that makes the finances work out a bit better. You're only paying to install one system because the solar panels on the church are serving the church and the house, you're only paying one of those increased fees, and you're also spreading the solar power once, once you get it installed as free farther. So you're increasing your savings by using more solar power and you're decreasing the cost by serving two buildings with one system. And that's sort of how they made the finances pencil out.

BRODIE: Is this the kind of thing that we're seeing more, either houses of worship or municipalities or libraries or schools or that kind of place try to do in terms of maybe insulating them from the unpredictability to some extent of the larger grid.

BLOK: Yeah, I think it's a case by case basis. But I think there are two things going on that sort of installing solar and battery backup can kind of insulate you against. One is increasing costs. The Energy Information Administration says that over the last 10 years, energy across the country has gone up by about 25% in terms of cost. The other thing that's increasing is disruptions. So in 2013, the average American had about 3.5 hours of an outage. And in 2021 that number was up over seven. So installing solar and battery backup can kind of help you get at both of those things.

BRODIE: How does this fit into sort of a larger story? We see, for example, people putting, you know, rooftop solar on their homes or you know, entities putting solar panels in their parking lots to, you know, provide shade and generate some electricity. Like how, how big of a deal is this? Maybe how big of a deal could it become?

BLOK: I think that one thing that's very clear is that we need a lot more renewable energy to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The fifth National climate assessment just came out and said once again a as much. And we've also in the last year had the inflation reduction act which boosted which boosted incentives for going solar. It increased the tax break that you get. And it's also increased or made available the tax break to entities that don't pay taxes like churches, like libraries, like municipalities. So it opens up this incentive to a lot more entities.

BRODIE: Yeah, I'm curious how much like regulation and tax policy and, and sort of the rules of the utilities, how big of a role that plays in whether or not, you know, churches, synagogues, other houses of worship, other types of places might want to do something like this.

BLOK: Yeah, it obviously can play a role it was, you know, one of the factors that play for this Tucson church, and when I spoke with people in California, the director of California Interfaith Power and Light, which is helping some churches there go solar and install battery storage. She said that this direct pay feature was going to make a big difference right now. They are relying on either the church footing the bill or charitable donations or something like that. But this new tax break or not tax break, but this new incentive when we get the rules, should make a big difference. That's what I've heard.

BRODIE: What did you hear from the folks in Tucson about how this is all working out so far? Like what do they, what do they have to say about, about this project they're working on?

BLOK: One thing that I did hear, and I don't think made into the story, was that they like to do more. They've got more buildings that they could serve with solar and stuff like that. But, you know, that takes money and time and effort. But in terms of the system that they have set up now, it seems to be working as they, as they expected and, you know, the, the savings are about what they expected. And and the system is functioning well. So I think it's working out as they, as they hoped.

BRODIE: All right, that is Andrew Blok, a reporter with CNET. Andrew, thanks so much for your time. I appreciate it.

BLOK: Thanks for having me.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.