Faith in going carbon free

Boulder church outlines the path to carbon neutrality

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Mountain View United Methodist Church has installed a 187 solar panel array.
Courtesy of Arthur Howe

For many people, religion offers a path to a better life. Mt. View United Methodist Church has developed a different kind of path that can improve anyone’s life regardless of what they believe, one that leads to carbon neutrality.

Between conservation, solar panels and purchasing carbon offsets, the church reached its carbon neutral goal this spring, after eight years of hard work.

“I do remember thinking at the beginning that it seemed very ambitious, and I wasn’t sure that they would be able to make it a reality,” says church member Bonnie Strand. “But they were tireless.”

The church is celebrating the achievement by holding an informational meeting on Thursday, Oct. 13, where they hope to guide others on the carbon neutral path.

“We’d like to tell people how we’ve done it, in the hopes that they can take the same sort of steps that we have,” says Arthur Howe, Mt. View trustee.

The first thing to know about going carbon neutral is that it takes a village.

“I would start with finding like-minded people,” says Mary Beth Downing, chair of the church’s green team. “There needs to be more than one of you because one person can’t make this happen.”

The church’s green team heard about Xcel’s solar rebates, which got the carbon neutral ball rolling.

Bear in mind, there are increasingly fewer solar rebates. In 2007 Xcel offered a total rebate of $4.50 per watt installed. Now rebates are down to a 30 percent tax incentive, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The utility also gives back a couple cents back per kilowatt-hour returned to the grid, a type of payment Xcel has tried to eliminate. In 2015, the company reported that its 25,000 solar customers with rooftop solar had “eroded” revenue 9.8 million dollars. A loss, it says, that is made up by non-solar customers.

Downing says the church made getting solar a priority because the dwindling rebates were a ticking clock.

Now the church has established a three-step process for anyone hoping to go carbon neutral themselves. The first step is getting an energy audit to find out where to conserve energy.

For the church, fluorescent lighting was a big issue. Over six months, volunteers changed out 229 fluorescent light bulbs and exit signs, and later followed up by replacing a series of high power spotlights, which dropped their energy use by 4 kilowatts.

During this step, they also found that reducing their peak energy usage below 25 kilowatts lowered their electricity rates. They purchased a demand management system from Brayden Automation in Longmont that tracks energy usage and shuts down high-energy users, like the dishwasher or air conditioner, when power usage gets too high.

“It has to do with identifying when those peaks are happening and then trying to spread out that usage,” says Bill Brayden, of Brayden Automation.

Customers with low overall use paired with periods of very high use, such as churches with generally low activity mixed with high energy use during church services, stand to benefit the most from demand control.

“Demand is the biggest secret in the electric business,” Brayden says. “And I think the utilities in general are afraid of demand because it represents an enormous customer service education problem.”

Improving customer service and educating customers could substantially reduce demand, Brayden says, but it isn’t a priority for Xcel. He says demand management is like cruise control for your electricity use.

“When you get going too fast it will slow it down, and then when you’re slowed down substantially or enough it will speed you back up,” Brayden says. “You still use generally the same amount of energy.”

By spreading out demand, the church’s $8,000 system saves $7,000 annually.

“Then there was the renewable,” Downing says, indicating the second step to carbon neutrality. “Where you look at alternative ways to meet [electricity needs] without oil and gas.”

The church purchased 187 solar panels for $180,000. Xcel offered $86,000 in rebates, and pays the church four and a half cents for every kilowatt-hour they return to the grid.

For the rest of the costs, the green team asked for support from the congregation, wanting to ensure they weren’t taking on an expensive project on the whim of a few members. The green team held a campaign to fund the solar panels.

They asked for 60 panels to be purchased at $400 each. Parishioners exceeded expectations, ultimately purchasing 98 panels.

In 2015 the solar panels brought a net savings of almost $15,000, which included $2,557 in payment from Xcel for excess electricity generated. In total they have reduced the church’s carbon footprint by 180 tons of carbon dioxide.

“After all of that we added it all up and found that we were not carbon neutral at that point, although we were far more carbon neutral than we had been,” Howe says. “Electricity-wise we were carbon neutral, but of course we consumed reasonable quantities of natural gas, particularly through the winter.”

Step three is what Downing calls the icing on the cake — carbon offsets.

A note about buying carbon offsets: Make sure they are verifiable, additional, permanent and enforceable. One carbon offset represents one ton of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere. In order for that to happen, there needs to be an actual project undertaken that wouldn’t have happened otherwise and a third party should confirm that it happens for long enough to account for one ton of carbon dioxide. Otherwise your money could end up as a gift to a landowner promising not to cut down his trees, which he had never planned to, but ended up doing the next year anyway.

“We used a company called Trees, Water, People in Longmont,” Howe says. “And they offered a system whereby you could purchase young trees, which they would plant on your behalf in a Native American reservation in North Dakota.”

Mt. View offset the 110 tons of carbon dioxide it was still using by purchasing solar furnaces for indigenous people in North Dakota and helping plant a memorial forest on the Pine Ridge Reservation to replace trees lost in a major forest fire there.

“University of Colorado State’s nursery program went up there and harvested the seeds from the burned trees and took it down to their nursery,” Downing says. “CSU’s nursery has been growing them into fingerlings and then Trees, Water, People takes those back up to the reservation and has trained tribal people to plant them, care for them and rebuild their forest right where it burned down.”

Mt. View has taken this process one step at a time, holding annual luncheons to fund projects and informing churchgoers with meetings and newsletters. The combination of community support and breaking the project into manageable tasks made the goal achievable.

“There were people that were volunteering to sit outside of the sanctuary and answer any and all questions about the project and that went on for a couple of months,” Strand says. “So it was very, very easy for people to get whatever information they felt that they might be lacking.”

The Thursday meeting at Mountain View United Methodist church, will feature presentations by Boulder County’s EnergySmart, Sunnyside Solar Colorado, and Trees, Water & People representing the three steps of Mt. View’s path to carbon neutrality.

“I view it as progress in the area of energy use … the population globally is rising and we use too much in the U.S., we use too much of those resources,” says Jeannine Malmsbury, a member of the green team. “So if we can conserve, then maybe we can share some of our energy with other countries.”

Clarification: In Arthur Howe’s quote he mentions working with Trees, Water, People in Longmont to plant trees in North Dakota. In reality, Trees, Water & People is based in Fort Collins and plants trees on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.