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Let it shine

Posted: February 27th, 2015 | Communities, Feature, News, North Park, Top Story | 1 Comment

By B.J. Coleman

St. Patrick Catholic Parish promotes carin’ for the green with solar power

A famous Irish blessing runs, “May the road rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

The leaders of St. Patrick Catholic Parish in North Park proved they have taken this message to heart — especially the passage about the worth of the sun shining warm upon the Uptown residents they serve.

The church grounds now feature recently installed solar power panels to generate energy for the church’s facilities.

The majority of St. Patrick Catholic Parish’s electricity now comes from solar power thanks to Rev. Michael McFadden. (Photos by B.J. Coleman)

The majority of St. Patrick Catholic Parish’s electricity now comes from solar power thanks to Rev. Michael McFadden. (Photos by B.J. Coleman)

Father Michael McFadden is an Augustinian priest and lead pastor at St. Patrick Catholic Parish. Previously, he spent around a decade as a teacher, and another decade serving in Central American refugee camps. He was transferred to the St. Patrick assignment nearly five years ago, after serving another parish in Ventura County.

It was at the Ventura Parish that McFadden became interested in use of solar power.

“This really makes sense,” he said, and he was instrumental in acquiring three or four grants supporting installation of 72 panels for the facilities, for which the parish paid out an additional $75,000. The savings in energy bills began immediately.

“In any parish, money is not the most plentiful thing,” McFadden said wryly.

He brought that wise sensibility into planning a similar project in his current parish at St. Patrick. McFadden describes the tandem problems here, however, are a relatively poor parish and only limited grants now available to offset costs of putting solar panels in place. One option was a lease agreement with a solar power provider, which would retain ownership and maintenance responsibilities.

The St. Patrick solar panels reduced the parish’s electricity bill by 60 percent during the first month of operation. (Courtesy of Sullivan Solar Power)

The St. Patrick solar panels reduced the parish’s electricity bill by 60 percent during the first month of operation. (Courtesy of Sullivan Solar Power)

McFadden chose instead for St. Patrick to buy the church its own solar generation equipment. He began saving up for the project, found grant money, and the church ended up paying $119,000 to Sullivan Solar Power for purchasing two arrays. One set of panels tops a new carport over the blacktop that doubles as a playground on weekdays and church parking area on weekends. The other array is installed atop the preschool-kindergarten building of the church’s school.

The project took about a year, starting in November 2013, with completion last December. McFadden estimates the project will cut the church’s electricity bills by 60 percent. Before the panels, the church had been paying about $2,000 per summer month and $1,200-1,500 monthly during winter. For the first month since the solar panel installation, which is the first bill available for comparison, the church paid $600. McFadden estimates the project will pay for itself within eight years.

 (Photo by B.J. Coleman)

(Photo by B.J. Coleman)

“This really is about three prongs,” McFadden said. “One, this is good for the environment. The Pope speaks highly of relating well to the earth, and we are supposed to be good stewards, taking care of it. Second, this saves dollars and promotes efficiency. Running a school, as we do, is expensive. This saves money for other church uses. And I believe this sets a good example for the community to embrace the earth.”

Why Sullivan Solar Power? Parishioner Steve Lachtman had had a good experience with Sullivan’s installation of solar panels at his nearby home, and Lachtman gave a recommendation. Moreover, McFadden said he discovered that Sullivan had a very good reputation.

Daniel Sullivan, founder and president of Sullivan Solar Power, described the history of dealing with St. Patrick Catholic Church as beginning with exploratory discussions about four years ago.

“The current price of solar and the large California Solar Initiative rebate of $23,738 helped St. Patrick Catholic Parish make solar pencil out,” Sullivan noted. “Father Michael’s inspiration started this project. He saw solar as a smart financial decision for the parish and something that was important to do for the environment. St. Patrick received multiple bids before signing a contract with Sullivan Solar Power in February 2014.”

 (Photo by B.J. Coleman)

(Photo by B.J. Coleman)

Asked about special elements or unique considerations in this particular project, Sullivan replied, “St. Patrick Catholic Parish didn’t want to install solar on the church’s roof, so we designed a solar carport in their parking lot and a second solar array on the roof of the school. The solar helps offset bills for both the church and school.”

“North Park is a perfect location for solar power,” he added. “There is an abundance of sunshine and clear blue skies without marine layer nearly year-round. San Diego is America’s top solar city per capita, per Environment America’s 2014 Shining Cities report.”

This project was Sullivan Solar Power’s first installation for a Catholic church. (The company performed earlier installations for St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Poway, Mission Valley Church of the Nazarene in San Diego and Paradise Valley Seventh-Day Adventist Church in National City.) Sullivan said the 26,965-watt solar shade structure and roof-mounted solar power system will assist St. Patrick Catholic Parish in saving an estimated $160,871 over the next 20 years, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2.2 million pounds.

Daniel Sullivan is a master electrician by trade, who by late 2000 had become intrigued by solar power as a solution for spiraling energy problems. He started his company in 2004, on “a leap of faith with an old beat up Ford Ranger, set of tools and only $2,500 in the bank.” For the first year, Sullivan worked and slept out of a customer’s garage. Today, the enterprise has 100 employees, more than 60 trucks, and satellite offices in Orange County and the Inland Empire, serving all of Southern California. The company foresees closing 2015 with over $50 million in sales. For five consecutive years, Inc. Magazine has ranked Sullivan Solar Power as one of the fastest growing energy companies in the nation.

Rev. Michael McFadden’s first foray into sustainable energy at places of worship was at his previous parish in Ventura County. (Photo by B.J. Coleman)

Rev. Michael McFadden’s first foray into sustainable energy at places of worship
was at his previous parish in Ventura County. (Photo by B.J. Coleman)

Father Michael McFadden isn’t done yet with his commitment to recycling and energy efficiency. His next plan is to cool the St. Patrick Church sanctuary, built in 1925, with state-of-the-art commercial fans.

“This is financial, practical and a theological commitment of the heart,” McFadden said of the energy efficiency projects he’s championed.

The solar plans don’t stop there though. During the spring, Tara Kelly, deputy director of community development with Sullivan, will assist with designing simple age-appropriate lessons for the church school’s kindergarteners. The studies should be interesting, if the youngsters’ early responses are an indicator. When the children’s teacher gave an introductory overview of how some energy sources are being depleted but the sun’s light and warmth are energy that can be used for people, one child asked, “What happens when we use it all up and there is no more sun?”

For the middle-schoolers, the church school’s lead science teacher, Hernan Valdivia, will partner with Kelly for solar science-technology-robotics lessons related to participation in the Junior Solar Sprint, a racing competition of vying student-designed and built, solar-powered model cars, which is usually held during the first weekend in June.

“This was an investment in time, money and energy,” McFadden said. “We’re glad we did it.”

—Contact B.J. Coleman at barshajo@aim.com.

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