Minneapolis congregation fosters sun worship of a different sort

  • Article by: JOSEPHINE MARCOTTY  , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2014 - 9:55 AM
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At the Mayflower church in south Minneapolis, the solar panel installation chamioned by pastor Sara Campbell has decreased the carbon footprint by 60 percent.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Sarah Campbell would like churches everywhere to supplement the cross with a new symbol of hope — solar panels.

That, she said, is exactly what the 750 members of the Mayflower United Church of Christ did last week when they flipped the switch on one of the largest solar arrays in Minneapolis as a brazen and public strike against climate change.

“We don’t have physical or spiritual space for despair anymore,” Campbell, the church’s lead minister, said Thursday. “I am really hopeful that we can turn this thing.”

In fact, it may already be working.

Just days after Mayflower’s 204 Minnesota-made panels were turned on in the icy sunshine, an administrative law judge concluded that solar is a better deal for the state and Xcel Energy than investments in new natural-gas generators. If the decision is upheld by the state Public Utilities Commission, it will open the door to massive solar installations across the state and potentially a sevenfold increase in solar power.

In addition, solar gardens are sprouting all over town. Those jointly owned solar arrays allow electric customers to invest in a project built somewhere off their property and own a share of the output. Their share of the electricity gets credited to their monthly bills. At least three are in the works in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the state.

For the members of the Mayflower Church, which sits at the corner of Diamond Lake Road and 35W and is part of the United Church of Christ, the energy project fit right into its historically liberal mission. It was among the first denominations to accept female and gay clergy. Mayflower considers itself a church of big dreams — symbolized by the giant dream catcher sculpture hanging from the roof of the sanctuary — and it does not dream humbly, said Campbell.

As a delegate to the World Council of Churches, Campbell was among those who persuaded the group to sign a letter to President Obama urging him to say no to the Keystone Pipeline proposed for carrying Canadian oil across the middle of the United States. At its annual synod last year, the United Church of Christ agreed to divest itself of all investments in fossil fuels and to adopt a goal of carbon neutrality.

“Humility is a nice trait. But when you are doing justice, it does not work well,” she said. “And church organizations can be powerful ways to create change.”

Built to be noticed

The congregation wanted the solar panels to get noticed — so it built a steel frame to hold one-fourth of them above the front door of the church. The others are largely hidden on the flat roof of the two-story education building behind the church. Only airplanes can see them, Campbell said.

It took five years of planning and a fundraising campaign to generate the $200,000 needed for the entire energy efficiency project. In addition to the solar panels that march in south-facing rows across the roof and the portico, the church also replaced its boiler, added insulation and put in more energy efficient light switches. In all, it has reduced its carbon footprint by about 60 percent, said Monte Hilleman, the church member who ran the project. By 2030 the church wants to be totally carbon neutral to set an example for halting climate change.

“How are we going to get there if we don’t tackle buildings?” said Hilleman, who is vice president of real estate and development for the St. Paul Port Authority. In the United States, buildings use about half of the nation’s electricity and produce about half of the carbon emissions that drive climate change, he said.

The financial advantages, though secondary, are considerable. Hilleman said thanks to energy credits and rebates from Xcel, it got $300,000 worth of energy investments that, after tax credits and other financial arrangements, will ultimately cost the church just $30,000. Of course, it had help from lawyers and the solar companies that built the array in figuring out how a tax-exempt church could take advantage of tax credits. But after knitting together an array of financing and cross-leasing agreements, they did it, he said.

Others are noticing. Campbell said she often is asked to speak about the project at other churches, and several members of the Mayflower congregation are looking into putting solar onto their own homes.

“And we are seeing growth in our membership of people who want to do more than talk about it,” Campbell said.

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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