From left, Steve and Susan Burdette, congregation president Phyllis Zerhusen, Kirk Hymes of the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, the Rev. Blaise Sedney, pastor, Rick Wegner, of Power Factor and John Ruzicka prepare to cut the ribbon Sunday morning on the new solar panel field at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air.
From left, Steve and Susan Burdette, congregation president Phyllis Zerhusen, Kirk Hymes of the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, the Rev. Blaise Sedney, pastor, Rick Wegner, of Power Factor and John Ruzicka prepare to cut the ribbon Sunday morning on the new solar panel field at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The sun shone brightly Sunday morning at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air, sunshine being a critical component of the church’s new power generator, a 648-panel solar array on its campus.

“It will supply all the electricity for the church, plus a little bit [extra],” said the Rev. Blaise Sedney, the pastor.

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Sedney, along with a small group of church members and those involved in building the solar field — plus several users of the Bel Air Community Garden that is next to the solar array — gathered Sunday morning to cut the ribbon on the facility.

“The church believes very strongly in taking care of the Earth that God gave to us,” Sedney said following the ribbon cutting,

The church, which has 740 parishioners, has energy-efficient LED lighting, made energy-efficiency improvements to its HVAC system and also hosts the community garden on its campus at 1200 Churchville Road. St. Matthew also supports a Spanish-speaking congregation of about 75 parishioners, plus a preschool serving 53 students, according to Julie McDonnell, the church’s web administrator.

The installation of the solar field started during the winter and ended this spring, according to McDonnell.

The array, which was built by the Essex-based Power Factor, has a capacity of about 235 kilowatts. Rick Wegner, director of commercial and industrial solar and energy storage systems, said the system produces power at a level of 105 percent, for the church, its preschool plus any future growth on the campus.

The solar array produces power when the sun is shining, as backup batteries are available for such systems, but they are not currently affordable for many users. Wegner said solar batteries should be available on a wider basis in about five years.

“At the end of the day, when the sun goes down, that’s it; then it doesn’t start producing again until the next day,” he said of St. Matthew’s system, which he noted was “producing like crazy” Sunday morning thanks to the strong sunshine.

Wegner said excess power generated by the solar field goes back to BGE’s electric grid. The church receives credits from BGE at a wholesale rate for power sent back to the utility grid, in accordance with the state’s net metering law.

“That’s what helps solar work in Maryland,” Wegner said of the net metering law. “It helps make it affordable for residential and commercial [users].”

This 648-panel solar field has been installed on the campus of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air to provide the church with electric power. Church leaders, parishioners and supporters of the project gathered Sunday morning to dedicate the solar field.
This 648-panel solar field has been installed on the campus of St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Bel Air to provide the church with electric power. Church leaders, parishioners and supporters of the project gathered Sunday morning to dedicate the solar field. (St. Matthew/Courtesy photo / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Power Factor and the church also have maintenance agreement in effect for 20 to 25 years, under which the installer will maintain the solar field at “no additional cost” to the church, according to Sedney. Power Factor builds solar projects for commercial and residential users around the Baltimore region, according to its website, https://www.powerfactorco.com.

Wegner said his company has built solar arrays for institutions such as Aberdeen Proving Ground, Harford Community College and an Amazon warehouse in Baltimore, but St. Matthew’s solar field is the first church project he’s done.

The array was installed at a cost of more than $500,000, which the church financed with a loan from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund. Sedney noted the system was “somewhat internally paid for," as the extension fund is supported by donations from Lutheran churches and parishioners.

St. Matthew will no longer pay a monthly electric bill, but the church will make monthly payments to the extension fund for about 12 years to repay the loan, according to Sedney. The church, which paid about $32,000 for energy in 2018, will then have no energy bill, he said. The church had an electric bill of $2,500 a month, according to a news release provided by McDonnell.

Kirk Hymes, vice president with the Lutheran Church Extension Fund’s southeastern district office in Alexandria, Va., also attended Sunday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. He said St. Matthew’s solar project is “kind of a trailblazing event” among projects financed through the fund.

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Other Lutheran churches can use St. Matthew’s initiative as a model for their own needs, and solar arrays, which can be placed on buildings or campuses, could work for churches that are “active, growing," he said.

“It gives our members the opportunity to contribute to the growth of the churches — and repairs,” Hymes said of the fund.

Susan Burdette, mayor of the Town of Bel Air and a St. Matthew parishioner, was on hand Sunday with her husband, Steve, a former Bel Air town commissioner and mayor.

“It’s definitely going to save the church a lot of money,” she said of the solar array.

Burdette indicated the community garden at the church — next to the solar panels — has helped the town earn a platinum-level certification through the HEAL (Healthy Eating Active Living) Cities & Towns Campaign. Municipalities in Maryland and Virginia can obtain support through the campaign to promote active lifestyles and healthy eating in their communities, according to the HEAL Cities & Towns Campaign for the Mid-Atlantic website, http://www.healcitiesmidatlantic.org.

McDonnell said 105 of the 130 raised beds in the garden have been leased by members of the community for the current growing season. Some users include local Girl Scouts, Lions Club members and children who attend the St. Matthew preschool.

“Produce overruns are frequently donated by our gardeners to those who utilize our church’s Food Pantry,” she wrote in an email Tuesday.

“Every bit of money that we save, we put back into the community,” Burdette said Sunday, echoing Sedney.

The church will also host a seminar on solar power from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 17 at the church, featuring presentations by Power Factor and BGE Smart Energy Program representatives. Contact Wegner at 443-417-48265 to RSVP.

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