A new green era for UUFR: The solar panels are here

By Russ Outcalt, Environmental Justice Ministry

UUFR has been working since 2019 to install solar panels, and as 2021 begins, we’re happy to report that they are installed and working. Here’s a drone’s-eye view of our system:

UUFR solar panels

These 117 solar panels were installed in the fall and are now producing electricity with no greenhouse gas emissions. They are a major element in UUFR’s commitment to fight climate change and reduce our carbon footprint.

We estimate they will provide 45 percent of the power we use in Fellowship Hall and prevent the emission of 675 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next 25 years. That’s the equivalent of taking 146 cars off the road for a year. They’ll also save UUFR tens of thousands of dollars on its electric bill over the life of the system. See more details about their benefits in this post.

This was one of the Environmental Justice Ministry Team’s major objectives since its organization in the summer of 2018. Several hundred hours of volunteer time were required to research the viability of the project, file applications and arrange for the installation. The board, staff and Facilities Task Force were strong supporters and participants from inception to completion.

Now that this project is complete, UUFR’s Environmental Justice Ministry is looking forward to taking on more projects, including renewing our Green Sanctuary accreditation, that will require a congregation-wide commitment to stop climate change.

To get involved with Environmental Justice at UUFR or ask questions about our new solar array, contact Russ Outcalt at [email protected].

UUFR solar panel installation

For those who want a few more details about the solar array’s technical and financial aspects, read on:

Solar array schematic

First, let’s cover the basics of how a solar photovoltaic electricity generating system works.  Solar panels are silicon-based semi-conductors and when photons (sunlight) strike them, that causes electrons to flow.  These electrons are in the form of direct current, like the flow from a battery, but we need alternating current to come out of our outlets.  Thus, the DC is routed to inverters that convert the DC to AC.  The inverters then send the electricity to the electrical panel in Fellowship Hall for our use.  During periods when the solar panels produce more than we need, the system sends the excess electricity back out to the grid and we get credit for that from Duke Energy.  Those credits reduce our electricity bill by the amount we would have paid for the electrons we give them.  So this allows us to fully take advantage of all the power we produce.

Our system consists of 117 solar panels which can each generate 320 watts of electricity when in full sun, for a maximum of 41.5 kW of system generating power.  We will probably never see that level, however, as the sun is never exactly overhead and there are always some shading effects due to nearby trees and the horizon.  However, our system is a respectable size and should cover almost half of the electricity needs of Fellowship Hall on an annual basis.  The panels are mounted on the flat membrane roofs which cover the office/lobby area as well as the entryway.  The panels sit on racks which are weighted down with cinder blocks so there is no penetration of the membrane.  We also checked the integrity of the membrane prior to installation, since roof replacement would require removal of the system at some expense.  However, our roof is in excellent shape, being only about five years old and should not need attention for a number of years.  The panels also shade the roof and protect it from physical damage, which will extend its life.  The panels are physically very robust and can withstand significant hailstorms and wind speeds of up to 140 mph.

You may wonder why we did not place any panels on the curved metal roof that covers the Sanctuary.  There are two reasons for that.  First, the metal roof is a key architectural element, forming a chalice-like curve.  Eventually, the fellowship plans to replace Peace Hall and a second building with a curved roof to complete the “chalice”.  You can see a model of this in the lower lobby of Fellowship Hall.  So aesthetically, placing solar panels there is problematic.  Practically there are problems as well.  The metal roof consists of overlapping panels which expand and contract as a function of temperature.  Placing panels on such an inherently unstable platform would be challenging and we decided, for all these reasons, to forego the option of expanding the system to the metal roof.

A final aspect of the solar array project is how we are paying for it.  Since the North Carolina legislature passed House Bill 589 in 2017, non-profit organizations have had new financing options for solar arrays.  Third-party vendors were allowed to lease systems while claiming and reselling the tax credits which heretofore were of no benefit to an institution such as UUFR that does not pay taxes.  Further, the bill required Duke Energy to pay rebates to customers who install solar PV systems based on their size.  We worked with Eagle Solar and Light on just such an arrangement.  Our system cost about $110,000 resulting in a rebate of $32,400.  Eagle used our rebate to cover all upfront installation costs and we will pay a lease to Eagle of $4,100 per year for ten years.  However, the reduction in our electricity bill will nearly match the lease payment, leaving us with just about $500 per year in out-of-pocket costs.  At the end of the lease, we can purchase the system for about $10,000 or ask Eagle to remove it.  If we purchase it, the system should last at least another fifteen years and is projected to save us about $50,000 in electricity bills over the full twenty-five years.  So this agreement did not cost us any money upfront and should save us money in the long run while fighting climate change.  A win-win.