St. Mary’s to become first solar-powered parish in diocese

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

SOUTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. — Although the namesake patroness of St. Mary’s Parish in South Dartmouth has often been praised as the “morning star” and described as being “bright as the sun,” it didn’t take much for pastor Father Rodney E. Thibault to finally see the light.

In response to Pope Francis’ Laudato Sí (“On Care For Our Common Home”), the pastor recently had energy-efficient solar panels installed on two of the parish’s four buildings that will power the entire campus and effectively cut their monthly utility bills in half.

“Last year when Pope Francis issued his encyclical I read it,” Father Thibault recently told The Anchor. “I don’t want to sound overly pious, but I was moved by it. You know, we really all have to do our own part to take care of the world.”

The pope’s simple yet urgent message to respect and protect God’s natural world resonated with Father Thibault and dovetailed perfectly with the Town of Dartmouth’s push for people to go solar during its recent 350th anniversary.

So the pastor did his due diligence by looking into some options for solar power.

“I was a little apprehensive at first, but I did talk to some people from Solar City,” Father Thibault said. “Lo’ and behold, they don’t do commercial-grade buildings. They put me in touch with another company, but it just wasn’t going to work for us. The money needed to buy and install the panels was just absolutely outrageous. So I put the idea aside.”

The idea was resurrected last summer when Father Thibault learned about the Fall River-based Alternate Power and Energy and the work they were doing to install solar panels at Holy Name School in the city.

“A representative from AP&E came out and we met and he said: ‘I think this might work,’” Father Thibault said. “They studied the square-footage that we have — I’m fortunate that we have a totally flat gymnasium (building) which is huge and the roof on the parish center is south-facing.”

Father Thibault was happy to learn that AP&E could install solar panels on the roofs of the gym and parish center that would generate enough energy to supply all four buildings. And they could simply lease them from AP&E.

“We have the church, the parish center, the gymnasium and the rectory,” Father Thibault said. “Obviously, I didn’t want to be putting (solar) panels on the church. It’s a beautiful, little quaint church at an intersection and you don’t want to ruin it. They told me that because of the square-footage, there would be no problem generating enough energy with panels on just two of the buildings to power the entire campus. So we’ll generate enough energy so the other two buildings will also reap the benefits.”

The other plus was that parishioners of St. Mary’s wouldn’t have to spend upwards of $325,000 to buy and install the solar panels upfront.

“We do not own the panels. We do not rent the panels. We do not maintain the panels. These are all things a pastor loves to hear,” Father Thibault said. “They own them. But what happens is we generate the electricity — they’re just using our space — and they get all the energy for the month.”

This particular project was also a winning proposition for AP&E, according to the company’s certified energy manager, Roger W. Gaydou.

“We get the federal tax credit, we own the solar system, we get the Massachusetts incentives, and what we do, in turn, is we offer the church a very handsome rate on their electrical costs over the next 20 years,” Gaydou explained. “We make that rate as best as we can with the model we are working with. I only proceed with a project if it makes sense for both parties.”

According to Gaydou, they have installed 240 solar modules at St. Mary’s Parish, each generating 315 kilowatts for a total of about 75,600 kilowatts direct current. Based on past utility bills, the parish uses about 80,000 kilowatts, and the solar system is capable of generating up to 94,000 kilowatts.

“That’s going to be just about what they’re going to need,” Gaydou said. “Obviously, if the system were turned on now, it’s going to very much under-produce during the snow months, but if you go a full cycle for a year and look back, it will cover almost all of their electrical utility expenses.”

Instead of paying Eversource, the parish’s current utility provider, an estimated 17.9 cents per kilowatt, they will be paying AP&E just 9.5 cents per kilowatt.

“Although we’ll still have a utility bill every month, it will be a fraction of what we’ve been paying,” Father Thibault said. “And for the next 20 years we will have a fixed electric bill that will not change.”

“Electricity varies with the cost of natural gas and 17.6 cents is about the lowest rate they’re ever going to see,” Gaydou added. “Right now, the cost of natural gas is rock bottom. Two years ago they were paying 26 cents per kilowatt hour, just to give you an idea.”

While St. Mary’s Parish will save an estimated $7,800 in the first year alone, Gaydou said they can expect to save even more over the next 20 years.

“You can’t just multiply $7,800 by 20 because 10 years from now the cost of electricity might be 30 cents a kilowatt hour, but they’ll still be paying 9.5 cents per kilowatt hour,” he said. “So the 20-year benefit to the parish is a [minimum] of $275,000.”

Installation of the solar panels on the parish center and gym began in earnest before the holidays so the project could meet a fast-approaching January 8 deadline to qualify for a state incentive grant.

“The deadline was January 8 to have it mechanically-complete in the eyes of Massachusetts,” Gaydou said. “I have sent all the paperwork off to the state and we’ve locked in the Massachusetts incentive for this project, which had to happen. We had an accelerated schedule on the project to meet the deadline.”

“There will be new energy credit programs after January 8, they’re just not going to be as good as the ones that just expired,” Father Thibault added.

While the prospect of lowering his monthly bills was certainly appealing, Father Thibault also thinks it helps to “send a good message” by going solar.

“We are the first parish in the diocese to go entirely solar,” he said. “Sure, we’re saving some money. But we are doing our part, too. We’ve listened to what Pope Francis has said and setting a trend is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when it’s leading to something good. We all need to do our part to help the environment, and here’s one way to do it.”

At press time some last-minute work was being done to complete the necessary wiring and Father Thibault said they have temporarily relocated weekend Masses to the gymnasium building while work is being done inside the main church.

“They need ways to collect the energy that’s generated from the solar panels and all this work needs to be done before it’s connected to the grid,” he said. “We then need to have everything inspected, and hopefully by spring everything should be up and running. I know Father Jay T. Maddock told me it took them about two months to bring the school online.”

“This project probably won’t be turned on until March or April, because the utility company still has to do about $40,000 of utility work out on the street,” Gaydou agreed. “We pay for that, that’s included in our price. A lot of projects don’t need upgrades, but the transformers for this project were too small, and Eversource won’t pay for that. They’re not going to pay for anything on a project where they’re actually losing revenue, so all the expenses are incurred by the system owner.”

Though he’d “love to see all churches in the diocese go solar,” Gaydou cautioned that not every location would be as cost-effective and it would largely depend upon the site, the number of buildings, and the available subsidies.

“Honestly, the only reason solar really took off over the last 10 years or so is because it’s being subsidized,” he said. “Eventually, those subsidies are going to go away, so the price will need to come dramatically down for it to be cost-effective.”

With a few months to go before the solar system is fully operational, Father Thibault is already looking ahead to the summer months. 

“It will be nice in the summertime when the air conditioning is running, and I won’t feel as reluctant to turn it down another degree now,” he said.

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