By Sadie Rogerson, intern
In a state where oil and gas are among the top three industries, a church in Hesston, Kansas is looking to shine a light on an alternative power source: solar.
This past summer, Hesston Mennonite Church completed a solar project over three years in the making. Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, congregation members had begun to discuss embarking on a solar project, but the pandemic stalled progress. In the fall of 2022, the church set a goal to reduce its carbon footprint and returned to its plan to install solar on its roof. According to Nelson Kilmer, longtime congregation member and retired physics professor at Hesston College, leaders of the project weren’t sure how the congregation would feel about putting solar panels on the church.
Some members of the church were less committed to addressing climate change, but when put to a vote at the annual congregational meeting, the project passed 73%. – Nelson Kilmer
This outcome surprised Kilmer. “Many who weren’t concerned about climate change still supported the initiative,” he added.
Kilmer himself was heavily involved in the project. He became interested in solar in the 1980s and has since worked on many solar projects and taught energy management at Hesston.
“By taking advantage of renewable energy technologies like solar, you are doing something for the environment and creation, and saving money at the same time!” – Nelson Kilmer
This environmental and faith-based motivation is what drove Kilmer to put solar panels on his own house twelve years ago, which now provide all the energy needed to power his home as well as his plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.
For the church’s solar installation, Kilmer’s primary role was in designing the system and working with the planning committee which was chaired by Dave Wiebe. Dave Wiebe, who is the church’s treasurer and a member of the board, was involved in the project’s financing. With help from the larger Hesston community, the church surpassed its initial fundraising goal of $50,000 and ultimately collected over $200,000 in donations which covered more than two-thirds of the project cost. The church plans to apply for the recently introduced federal solar tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act at the end of 2023, after which the installation will be all paid off.
Kilmer estimates that the 321 panel, 400+ watt installation will reduce the electric bill by $35,000 on average annually, saving the church over $20,000 per year initially and $40,000 per year within three decades. Beyond these direct energy savings, the project is also expected to yield significant environmental benefits; projections estimate the panels will provide a $34,000 annual reduction of the social cost of carbon, and 1 million gallons of water savings over its lifespan.
From the start, the solar installation exceeded expected energy outputs. According to Kilmer, the solar system reduced carbon emissions by 21,230 lbs in its first 19 days of operation–an average of 1,117 pounds of carbon dioxide pollution a day.
Spreading the gospel
Kilmer hopes that Hesston Mennonite’s project will inspire other houses of worship nearby.
“I have also been working with another church in Newton Kansas, 7 miles from Hesston, planning for a 185 panel solar system for their church which could be completed before the end of ,” Kilmer said.
While the state may seem like an unlikely place for solar energy installations to be on the rise, the proportion of electricity from renewable energy sources Kansas consumes has increased significantly over the past decade. In 2022, 70% of the electricity the state consumed was produced from solar, wind and geothermal power, compared with just 24% in 2013 (Environment America Research & Policy Center, Renewables on the Rise 2023). The decision made by Hesston Mennonite Church and others nearby to install solar panels exemplifies this progress. It also indicates that congregation members have recognized the exciting potential of houses of worship as places for solar panels, as during the week, when these buildings aren’t used as much, their clean energy can be used by households and businesses in their community. On Sundays or holy days, however, congregations can tap the solar to power their own building with clean renewable energy.
This growing trend of houses of worship going solar, both in his community and nationally, is exciting to Kilmer, who concluded, “We would certainly support getting this solar opportunity out to other churches.”
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Executive Director, Washington Legislative Office, Environment America; Vice President and D.C. Director, The Public Interest Network
Lisa directs strategy and staff for Environment America's federal campaigns. She also oversees The Public Interest Network's Washington, D.C., office and operations. She has won millions of dollars in investments in walking, biking and transit, and has helped develop strategic campaigns to protect America's oceans, forests and public lands from drilling, logging and road-building. Lisa is an Oregonian transplant in Washington, D.C., where she loves hiking, running, biking, and cooking for friends and family.