Powered by faith and the sun: Northumberland Co. church turns to solar

Written by Rachel McDevitt | Dec 22, 2017 7:00 AM

Deacon Jim Kohl and Pastor Mike Miller stand outside Sunbury Bible Church on December 14, 2017. (Photo: Rachel McDevitt/WITF)

(Northumberland) -- Solar energy development in Pennsylvania has been lagging behind its neighboring states. Trade representatives attribute the trend in part to lower incentives, like rebates or tax credits.

But some have found a more compelling incentive than money: faith.

Sunbury Bible Church in Northumberland County officially made the switch to solar power this month.

The church's 610 solar panels are arranged in the shape of a cross on the roof.

They were covered in a thin layer of snow the week church leaders expected the utility company to pull the lever and allow the church to soak up the full power of the sun, which was lucky.

"Surprisingly, when you get dusting of snow, you enhance the solar generation, versus no snow at all," said Jim Kohl, the chair of the church's deacon board, which oversees finances and maintenance.

Kohl looked proud as he pointed out the newest addition to the building and its attached school, the Sunbury Christian Academy.

The panels are a mark of continued growth for the church, which began in Sunbury in the 1930s in a tent with sawdust floors and wooden benches. The congregation soon built a tabernacle on the island between Sunbury and Northumberland, which went through several renovations and expansions.

Now, worshippers gather at a sprawling, red brick building in Northumberland. The facility was built in 1990 to accommodate the growing parish.

Kohl, who has been active in the church since the 1960s, admitted he wasn't always so passionate about the project.

"If you would have told me five years ago that we would be installing solar on the roof of Sunbury Bible Church, I would have laughed at you," he said.

Five years ago, the church was about due for a new roof, and someone suggested adding solar panels.

That's an unusual move for a church -- or any non-profit that doesn't owe taxes -- because they can't take advantage of a federal tax credit for the installation.

For Sunbury Bible Church, the upfront cost was more than $300,000, with a discount through a financing company based in California.

But, the church didn't have to take out a traditional loan.

"There was so much support from congregation that the congregation said, 'let's finance it ourselves,'" Kohl said.

The solar panels are projected to replace the energy consumed by the average Pennsylvania home 24 times over, saving 150 tons of carbon emissions each year.

Kohl said the church and school's annual electric bill is $25,000, and their utility company recently sent out a notice of rising rates.

"With solar, we eliminate that [price increase]. So, for the next 30 years, the next 40 years, we've locked our electric price, cost for energy, at less than what we're paying today," he said.

Financial savings will kick in after about seven years, after the church pays back the congregation. Then that money can be put toward youth programs, and to fund missionaries who work around the world.

Pastor Mike Miller said it's a wise move forward, and it fits with the church's faith.

"From a biblical point of view, the Earth is the Lord's, this isn't ours, it doesn't belong to us," he said, "And so that's why the whole stewardship idea is that we want to be faithful managers of what God provides."

Miller called the decision to switch to solar a blessing to future generations, allowing them financial stability to plan and grow.

At the Christian Academy, teachers will be able to incorporate the panels into lessons about renewable energy. Students will track energy made and used through an online program.

Sunbury Bible Church has come a long way since the meetings in the tent.

"We truly feel we are a testimony and a lighthouse to our community," Kohl said.

"Amen," Miller responded.

Kohl and Miller hope this project will serve as an example to other churches, to inspire them to be good stewards and invest the savings into spreading the bible.

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