Virginia Faith Communities in Action
VAIPL is featuring solar faith communities and congregations across the Commonwealth all summer long. While we lift up and celebrate faith communities that have already gone solar, we hope you and your community will be inspired and informed by their journeys!
If you’d like your faith community or congregation to be featured this summer, please let us know by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to highlight your community.
Unity Renaissance Spiritual Center of Chesapeake
Chesapeake-based Unity Renaissance Spiritual Center of Chesapeake provides the Hampton Roads community with a positive, progressive approach to Christianity. Keeping aligned with Unity’s spiritual social action “to make a positive difference through personal example and active service in the spiritual community,” Unity Renaissance recently went green and invested in renewable energy for its facility.
“We are committed to making the world a better place, in all respects. That includes being mindful stewards of planet Earth. If we can heat and cool our building using less of Mother Earth’s limited resources, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to do it,” says Rev. Paula Mekdeci, Senior Minister of Unity Renaissance.
In early 2018, Unity Renaissance installed 66-solar panels on its roof with a total system capacity of 22,110 Watts expected to produce enough energy to cover 50 percent of its annual energy needs. Total savings will be roughly $3,000/year.
“As a nonprofit with limited resources, Unity Renaissance is able to avoid out of pocket expenses by leasing the Photovoltaic System (PV) through Convert Solar and paying back the investor with funds they ‘would have’ paid to Dominion Power. Unity Renaissance will own the panels in 12 years, and reap the benefits of the system for at least another 8 years,” says Susan Lang (pictured right), an environmentalist and Member of Unity Renaissance’s Facility Team.
In addition to the solar panels, LED lights replaced incandescent lights throughout the renovated sanctuary and will be incorporated into the upcoming facility build outs.
“When we say we are here to transform lives that transform the world, that includes helping people live from the highest level of consciousness. A high level of consciousness includes being attuned to the big picture and seeking to take actions that are for the benefit of all,” says Rev. Mekdeci.
Unity Renaissance’s Indoor and Outdoor Green Teams (recipient of the Elizabeth River Star Award in 2017 and 2018) are instrumental in the planning and execution of the organizations vision to transform lives. “It took us over a year to coordinate this project within the church facilities and leadership teams because there are renovation and expansion projects going on at the same time! I’d recommend coordinating with local non-profit organizations that promote solar power and other renewables,” says Lang.
Yogaville, or Satchidananda Ashram, was founded in 1980 by Yogiraj Sri Swami Satchidananda. The primary goal of Swami Satchidananda was to use interfaith understanding as a vehicle to world peace. Located in Buckingham County, Virginia, along the James River, Yogaville boasts great natural beauty and connection to nature. However, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) is proposed to run just next to Yogaville. The proposed trajectory of the ACP runs 16,000 feet from the center of Yogaville and only 3,000 feet — ⅗ of a mile — from the Yogaville temple. Thus, Yogaville Environmental Solutions (YES), the environmental administrative department at Yogaville, took it upon themselves to study the effects and potential pros and cons of the pipeline on their community.
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline
According to YES Director Jeeva Abbate, the construction of the pipeline has far too few benefits and an insurmountable amount of drawbacks and potential dangers. The only two potential benefits that the pipeline offer are: 1) an increased availability and decreased price of natural gas, and 2) a maintained neutral economic relationship to the utility companies pouring money into the ACP’s development. Yet, the first pro is nullified considering that natural gas from the pipeline will not even serve the communities it runs through. In other words, Yogaville, and Buckingham County at large, will not reap any energy benefit from the pipeline. Therefore the pipeline offers negligible benefits to those who will have to endure its overwhelming negative impacts. Drawbacks of the pipeline include the exploitation of local populations, aquifer contamination, land degradation from potential erosion, explosions, spills, and landslides.
Thus, it was clear to YES that they must mount opposition to the ACP, for the protection of the Ashram itself, but also for the surrounding peoples in accordance to their values of peace, love, and justice. Yogaville supports and engages in much advocacy work to oppose the ACP, which has ultimately led to an unprecedented one-year delay in ACP construction while its potential effects are studied in greater detail.
Beyond the Pipeline
YES realizes that it is not enough to say “no” to a natural gas pipeline, and ultimately fossil fuels as a whole — a solution must also be presented to the problem. As Jeeva put it, “If we say ‘no’ to fossil fuels, what then can we say ‘yes’ to?” The answer is clear: renewable energy production and increased sustainable practices.
YES presents a three-fold plan to self-sustaining energy consumption: use less, use efficiently, and renewable energy sources. To use less, the YES Green Team made a simple checklist for key energy saving actions, like closing doors, turning lights off, etc. To use energy efficiently, Yogaville got an energy audit in 2016. Based on the audit, the Ashram could determine key areas of energy loss, efficiency improvement, and behavioral change. Yogaville has since made significant energy efficiency upgrades to its most energy-intensive buildings and set up energy savings goals to continue to motivate improvement. In terms of the last point, using renewable energy, YES been rapidly engaging in solar development.
For going solar, YES’s plan has been to start small. At the end of 2017, Yogaville implemented their pilot solar system — a 65kW array that covers half of the energy needed by their most energy-intensive building. This building, Sivananda Hall, uses ~2400 kWh a year, imposing an energy cost of ~$20,000 per year. The array, offsets, on average, just under 50% of the energy cost of the building. YES expects that this relatively small project will allow Yogaville to see how effective solar can be and encourage implementation growth. Jeeva predicts that, based on the pilot project’s performance, there should be little opposition to getting the whole roof of the Sivananda Hall covered in solar panels in order to offset 100% of the building’s energy use. Thus, by starting small, the community will be willing to continue renewable project growth. Jeeva stresses the financial benefits of going solar: their solar project is already saving the Ashram considerable amounts of money, and the savings will undoubtedly increase with increased solar implementation and energy efficiency upgrades.
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Westminster Presbyterian Church is a Christian faith community serving the University of Virginia and the greater Charlottesville and Albemarle areas. Stewardship of Creation is a core value of the Westminster community. One of the many ways Westminster has taken steps to honor their commitment to Creation is by integrating renewable energy on their campus, including a 57-panel solar array on the roof of one of their buildings.
April 22, 2018 marked the first anniversary of Westminster’s solar array. The solar panels produced 9.84 MWh (megawatt-hours) of electricity in this past year—close to the average overall consumption of an American home. At the same time, the Westminster campus’s overall energy consumption dropped from 187 MWh to 175 MWh, which means that over 5% of its total energy comes from the solar array! In addition, the congregation was able to sell $677 worth of excess electricity back to utilities within this first year,offsetting an additional 5% of their annual electricity expense.
Slate roofing on most of Westminster’s buildings prevents the congregation from being able to implement more rooftop solar, but that has not stopped the church community’s green team from exploring more renewable energy sources. For example, the church has outsourced its utility bill to Arcadia Energy, who matches their electric usage with investment in wind energy credits. In this way, the church community also actively supports the growth of renewable energy in hopes of one day getting to 100% renewable!