Catholic organization combats climate change through solar panel installations

Catholic Charities’ solar panels span more than five acres in the far northeast side of Washington, D.C.
Catholic Charities’ solar panels span more than five acres in the far northeast side of Washington, D.C.

Dan Misleh

Related Topics:
Climate, Conservation, Solar

Tucked away behind a Catholic organization building in northeast Washington, D.C. lies a vast solar farm soaking up the sun’s rays as energy for Catholic buildings.

These huge projects are thanks to the Catholic Climate Covenant, an organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., which helps the Catholic community understand and act on the issue of climate change.

Executive director Dan Misleh founded the Covenant in 2006 after he worked on environmental policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. One of the ways the organization has helped Catholic communities act on the issue of climate change is by encouraging community members to install solar panels on their properties to help them save money and lower their reliance on fossil fuels.

For Misleh, climate change education is an essential part of the process. He said that when he discusses environmental issues with Catholic organizations, he always tries to bring it back to his faith.

“If God has given us a gift, and if we just take that gift and throw it in the trash, that’s not being very respectful to the gift giver,” Misleh said.

In recent years, many Catholics felt motivated by Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ published in 2015 which established climate change as a moral issue Catholics should address. In 2021, Pope Francis put his plans from the letter into action by telling Catholic organizations to launch a seven year plan to create environmentally sustainable efforts within their communities.

But Misleh said that when he had the idea to install solar panels on Catholic properties, he needed more help. Through the Covenant, Misleh created Catholic Energies which focuses on the installation of these solar panels with the help of Mission Energy — a company that works to reduce energy costs through solar panels. Misleh said Mission Energy provides the “expertise” the Covenant needs to install solar panels.

Dan Last, who is the Co-Chief Executive Officer of Mission Energy, said Misleh approached him eight years ago with the idea to form a group within their company. He said Mission Energy was interested in creating Catholic Energies because they help Catholic organizations reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they release and save money.

“There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around doing work like this,” Last said.

Laura Clark, who is the Vice President of Operations for Mission Energy, also said solar panels help the environment because they reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

According to Misleh, installing solar panels on Catholic buildings has helped them save between a few thousand to over a hundred thousand dollars in their electrical bill since they were installed.

Paying for power

These Catholic organizations pay to install their solar panels through the help of a Power Purchase Agreement. Last said that with this agreement, a third party is responsible for paying for the installation of these solar panels, with the Catholic organizations later paying back the third party over a set amount of years.

“[Third party developers] like working with our groups because churches, Catholic healthcare systems, religious communities are not going anywhere and in some cases have been around for hundreds of years,” Last said.

But since the passage of President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, Last said the amount of money Catholic organizations have to pay back to third parties under the Power Purchase Agreement is lower since the federal government is now subsidizing up to 50% of the cost for sustainable projects.

Through the work of Catholic Energies, Catholic organizations are finding it easier and cheaper to carry out sustainable practices. Since the establishment of Catholic Energies within Mission Energy, Last said the group has completed over three dozen projects across the United States. 

Catholic Charities solar panels located in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of Dan Misleh)

Solar at scale in D.C.’s backyard

One of the biggest solar projects Energies undertook was installing solar panels for the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Catholic Charities focuses on social ministry, guided by the message of Jesus Christ. They specifically help the poor, immigrants and people with mental and developmental disabilities through various support programs like food distribution.

Last said Catholic Charities approached them when they were switching to LED-powered lights within their facilities. He said Catholic Charities was interested in installing solar panels on a 14 acre property they owned on the far northeast side of Washington, D.C., behind the Gift of Peace house and convent. Last said they wanted the solar panels to be built on this space because it was mostly clear and flat.

“Long story short, that turned into the solar project,” Last said.

The project was completed in the fall of 2019 and includes a large solar panel farm of 5,000 panels. According to the Catholic Energies website, the project offsets nearly 3,400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually which is the equivalent of getting rid of 735 car emissions in one year.

Since the solar panels are located in a field, they also created a pollinator garden using the space between the panels. According to the DC Department of Energy & Environment, pollinator gardens improve habitats for wildlife and require little attention as they thrive without fertilizer, pesticides or extra water.

“It’s got lots of great, positive impacts for the Catholic Charities and the community,” Misleh said.

Catholic Charities’ solar panels are in a field so they also planted pollinator plants. (Courtesy of Dan Misleh)

Even though the solar panels are concentrated in one area, they help subsidize the cost of Catholic Charities’ 12 buildings located all across Washington, D.C. Misleh said the solar panel farm gives energy to Pepco, lowering the utility company’s reliance on fossil fuels.

In total, Misleh said Catholic Energies has helped Catholic Charities cut their electric bill by $250,000. Even though a third party is in charge of operating the solar panels which Misleh said costs $185,000 per year, a total of $65,000 in savings is going towards other projects run by Catholic Charities.

“We were very, very proud of that project,” Misleh said.

Creative solutions to make a difference

Catholic Energies also works with local communities such as Nativity Catholic Church and Nativity Catholic School in Burke, Va. Husband and wife, George and Kim Young, who are parishioners at Nativity, volunteer their time within the Creation Care Ministry. Unlike Catholic Charities which installed their solar panels in a field, theirs are installed on a roof.

The solar panels located on top of Nativity Catholic Church which powers their church and Nativity Catholic School. (Courtesy of Kim Young)

In their full time jobs, George Young is a licensed clinical social worker and master addiction counselor with a private practice, while Kim Young is a naturalist at Hidden Oaks Nature Center. After Pope Francis’s Encyclical Letter Laudato si’ came out, they wanted to create an organization within their parish to address environmental issues.

“That really provided more inspiration and more support for this idea,” Kim Young said.

When George and Kim Young discovered Nativity needed a new roof, they thought the parish could also install solar panels. According to Kim Young, they were inspired by the success of installing solar panels on their own home years earlier. They were not in charge of the final decision making process but instead.

“Constantly when we would see the pastor in the hall, we would mention it when the opportunities presented itself,” Kim Young said.

Their advocacy paid off in July 2020 when Nativity completed the installation of the solar panels on its new roof. The project is expected to decrease Nativity’s carbon footprint by 7,700 tons along with estimated savings of $200,000 over the next 25 years after paying off the Power Purchase Agreement.

Due to Nativity’s efforts towards environmental issues, George and Kim Young helped the church win an Interfaith Power & Light award in 2022 for outstanding energy stewardship in response to climate change.”

The award Nativity Catholic Church won for their solar panel installation. (Courtesy of George Young)

Although Kim Young said she feels parishioners do not commonly think about the solar panels on the roof anymore, she said parishioners were excited when the pastor made a “big deal” in his sermon about the solar panels and when they won the Interfaith Power & Light Awards.

Kim Young said she wants to push for parishioners to reconnect with the environmental difference Nativity is making and caring for the environment is not something “extra.”

“We see it as integral to our faith,” Kim Young said. “And to the point really, that it’s an obligation of our faith.”

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