Public, private use of solar spreads in Howard

Fulton church joins solar movement: "We'd rather spend money on ministry & missions instead of electricity."

From the ground, it's impossible to see the 1,150 solar panels that were recently installed atop Grace Community Church.

But seen from above, they're about all that's visible on the Fulton church's roof. And they're saving the congregation a lot of power.

The 345 kilowatt project, installed in June, is enough to offset 65 percent of the church's energy needs.

"We would rather spend money on ministry and missions instead of electricity," said Blair Nordvedt, the facility manager at Grace Community Church.

The church's panels are part of a growing number of solar arrays, both public and private, in Howard County.

Panels have been popping up at government facilities throughout the county: in recent years, they've been installed at the East Columbia library, the Miller branch library in Ellicott City, the Scaggsville Public Safety Training Center, the Savage fire station, the Robinson Nature Center and in the parking lots of the George Howard executive office building and the Little Patuxent Water Reclamation Plant.

Water at the Howard building is also warmed by solar water heaters, according to Daryl Paunil, facilities bureau chief for the Department of Public Works.

Columbia Association, the homeowners' association and nonprofit that owns many of the community's parks and fitness facilities, is also investing in solar.

According to CA's energy manager, Jeremy Scharfenberg, 25 percent of the energy the organization uses is supplied by solar panels at Nixon's Farm, a 10 megawatt solar farm in West Friendship. Since May, the balance of CA's energy use has been offset with green power through renewable energy certificates, Scharfenberg said.

CA has a few solar panels of its own, too, at Amherst House in Kings Contrivance and at the River Hill pool.

And the organization is partnering with Baltimore-based nonprofit Civic Works to get private citizens in on the solar action.

Through Retrofit Baltimore, a project that provides information about green energy retrofits in Baltimore City and surrounding counties, Civic Works consultants have been holding community meetings to help residents decide whether their house might be a good fit for solar.

About 30 people have made it through the screening process for solar panel viability, according to Scharfenberg. The next community solar meeting is scheduled for Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. at Slayton House in Wilde Lake.

Because Civic Works is working with communities across the Baltimore region, they have negotiated a reduced price for people who install a solar system through the initiative. Participating homeowners save about 25 percent off the market rate price of panels, according to Eli Allen, the director of Retrofit Baltimore.

"It's hard for individuals to navigate the process on their own, but as a group we can help ensure higher-quality service and lower prices through bulk purchasing," Allen said.

Using green energy, and sometimes producing it if the panels generate more power than the house needs, can save homeowners about 80 percent off their energy bills – and loan payments on solar systems are usually less than those savings, according to Allen.

"It's a great deal for really almost anyone to go solar," he said.

Residents who have been toying with the idea of going solar should consider acting soon to maximize their savings, Allen added: A federal solar energy tax credit expires at the end of 2016.

At Grace Community Church, the congregation's new solar panels will save the equivalent of 10,000 trees, 400 tons of carbon dioxide emissions and 44,000 gallons of gasoline per year, according to Pfister Energy of Baltimore, which installed the array.

It's the largest on-site power generator in the county, said Doug Groves, general manager for Pfister Energy. He predicts solar projects will multiply in years to come.

"The mystique starts to go away once it becomes mainstream," he said.

Nordvedt said the project fits in with the church's spiritual mission, too.

"The Bible does talk about taking care of this world we live in," he said. "If we can be better stewards of the planet, we think that's a good thing."

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