Central Pennsylvania Episcopal church installs solar panels to save money, care for creation

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Aug 9, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in rural Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is installing 52 solar panels with the goal to save at least $4,000 a year in electricity costs, which church leaders hope will help the congregation meet the growing challenge of balancing its budget while continuing to support charitable ministries.

“If this array provides our electric electrical needs, it should really reduce our costs and [carbon dioxide] production,” Maggie Chappen, senior warden, told Episcopal News Service.

A private donor paid the upfront cost of $82,000 — $15,000 to partially replace the roof plus $67,000 to install the church’s solar panels — which Chappen expects to be operational by autumn. The energy savings and other renewable energy incentives combined are expected to help balance the church’s budget, said Chappen, who 10 years ago installed solar panels at her home, and is leading St. Andrew’s project. 

St. Andrew’s has faced declining church membership in recent years, resulting in decreased plate and pledge income. The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the decline, and the church has faced competition from bigger churches attracting younger families with amenities — such as coffee shops and basketball leagues. To help reduce the church’s expenses, the Rev. Sarah Weedon, St. Andrew’s rector, is currently working three-fourths time.

“[St. Andrew’s is] a wonderful parish,” Weedon told ENS while confirming her switch to working three-fourths time. “I love them dearly.”

Leaders say the money saved by transitioning to solar energy will help the church remain open, continue its diaper bank and provide continued support to area nonprofits, Chappen told ENS.

The solar panels won’t just benefit St. Andrew’s financially. Transitioning to clean energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental pollutants that impact humans and wildlife.

“We’re to do this job here and now of preserving [God’s] creation, and we’re doing a terrible job of it,” Chappen said. “Species, God’s creations, are going extinct every day. We will soon make ourselves extinct if we don’t shape up and do a better job of getting rid of extractable technology and going to renewable technology. So why not take God’s greatest, most abundant source of energy in Pennsylvania, the photon, which will cost us nothing to clean up, and use that?”

St. Andrew’s project coincides with similar efforts underway churchwide. In July 2022, General Convention committed The Episcopal Church to carbon neutrality in all its facilities and operations by 2030, but its success will depend on buy-in of more than 6,200 congregations nationwide.

St. Andrew’s will be the first parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania to take advantage of the federal Inflation Reduction Act’s direct pay provision for tax-exempt organizations credit. 

The congregation’s solar installation drew the attention of a film crew from Climate Nexus, a nonprofit climate community organization dedicated to highlighting the impacts of climate change and clean energy solutions in the United States. The crew filmed a Sunday worship service and the first day of the solar panels’ installation. The video will be used to help raise awareness about how the Inflation Reduction Act works for tax-exempt organizations.

“Climate change is so depressing; it makes you feel so hopeless and fearful, like you have no agency,” Chappen said. “But there are small things we can do — like install solar panels — that if enough people did them, they would make a huge difference. 

“If our tiny church in central Pennsylvania inspires 100 other tiny churches, and those 100 churches each inspire 100 more … if it’s a big ripple effect, it will have a big and positive impact, and it’s our job to help people be hopeful and keep the faith about the goodness of this work. That’s our mission.”

-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at skorkzan@episcopalchurch.org.