There are two reasons to put solar panels on the roofs of Calvin University.
First, renewable energy can power the private Christian campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, without increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons and nitrous oxide that cause climate change.
Second, it will save the school money.
At Calvin, environmental reason is paramount. Budget support is a plus.
“I think taking care of the planet is a prerequisite for being a Christian,” Tim Fennema, vice president for administration and finance, told CT. “And as a Christian university, that’s something we want to do.”
Calvin has made it his mission to be carbon neutral by 2057. The school got a little closer last month when it announced a partnership with Indiana-based Sun FundED to offer a plan to install solar panels on university buildings, offsetting the high-carbon energy sources that Calvin currently uses to heat, cool and power the campus.
Solar panels on top of buildings will be a visible sign to the Calvin community that they take environmental concerns seriously, according to Fennema.
This sign is economically feasible due to advances in financing renewable energy projects. Calvin won’t have to go into debt or ask donors to raise funds for alternative energy. Sun FundED, a private company backed by venture capital, is a tax-fair investment. It will provide the solar power grid to Calvin at no upfront cost and then leverage tax credits that are not available to the nonprofit educational institution.
“It allows us to do it on a larger scale on campus than we ever could on our own,” Fennema said.
The school will pay Sun FundED a service fee that covers the costs of the business, and Sun FundED will pass on the tax credit benefits to investors.
“When the equity investor comes in, they get all of their tax credits, so they offset their tax exposure and they get all of the depreciation in the first year,” explained Sun FundED co-founder Kelly Hipskind. “They’re basically ready to get their money back.”
Investors will receive a portion of the profits in subsequent years, while Calvin, like other institutions that have done so, will pay less in service charges than it would for electricity generated from fossil fuels. .
The system, according to Hipskind, is designed to address environmental issue and cost management concerns while benefiting investors.
As a Christian businessman concerned about climate change, Hipskind believes it is possible to meet market and environmental needs. Both of his parents were teachers, so he also knew the challenges that educational institutions face. Thinking of these three factors together, he and his business partner, Patrick Poer, started a for-profit business providing solar power to schools.
He recalls it, now, somewhat like Genesis 1:3:
“And God said, ‘Hey, how about solar power? ‘,” joked Hipskind. “I heard at the dinner table about education needs and challenges, and then we said, ‘How can we impact the classroom and the bottom line?'”
Sun FundED, founded in 2018, is currently working with approximately 50 educational institutions at various stages of the path to solar energy. Hipskind estimates that the systems they have installed have already saved educational institutions about $50 million.
Environmental savings are harder to quantify, but for Christian colleges and universities, they seem more significant.
“We know this can help reduce costs and keep tuition affordable for our long-term students, or at least contribute to it. But we also know it’s the right thing to do from an environmental perspective,” said John Jones, vice president of operations at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU).
Evangelical school in Marion, Indiana, began serious consideration of solar in 2019. Like Calvin, IWU officials were concerned about the initial expense and whether renewables would be affordable. But the administrators were driven by a concern for creation and encouraged by student demands for the school to take climate change seriously.
“We know that people who will be walking on our campuses in the future will expect this,” Jones said. “We have to be prepared for that.”
With Sun FundED’s plan, going green seemed like the right thing to do not just in the long run but now. The school has 2.3 million square feet of buildings and could save $1 million in the first year the solar panels are in service.
“It takes a lot of energy to run this campus. Anything we can do to minimize that cost helps,” Jones said.
IWU is currently working with Sun FundED to determine which buildings will work best for solar panels. They also plan to create a solar farm – a field of panels that absorb the sun’s energy – on the university grounds.
While Jones is eager to see those plans come to fruition and pleased with the progress made so far, there have been bumps in the way. In Grant County, where the university is located, there have been questions and concerns from the community and objections from local utility companies.
“Solar power is somewhat new to our county, so there’s a lot of emotion around solar power and concern about solar power,” Jones said. “Some of them are real concerns, and some of them…may not have legs.”
Some community members don’t like the idea of a solar field taking up space that could be used to grow crops. Others have raised questions about the impact of solar panel fields in their backyards on property values. Some residents worry that the panels will reflect light (despite being designed to absorb it) and cause glare.
Jones, other university leaders and solar energy advocates are doing their best to address these concerns and make the case for alternative energy. Talking to the community unfamiliar with solar energy is part of the process.
Jones is confident that Grant County residents will be persuaded, as he was persuaded, that this is the best way forward.
“It’s the future, so to do nothing with renewables…is probably short-sighted on anyone’s part,” he said.
In Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Messiah University is currently seeing the results of renewable energy. The school has reduced its carbon emissions by 38% since 2008.
“We are getting closer to the 40% reduction mark,” Brandon Hoover, director of sustainability at Messiah, told CT. “We have a 50% reduction target by 2025.”
Care for creation has been a priority at the school for nearly a decade. The university has signed the Climate Pledge for Presidents of US Colleges and Universities, which includes a goal of complete carbon neutrality by 2050.
The speed of this transition is historic, Hoover said. Previous transitions in energy sources – from wood to coal or from wind to steam – took humans around 100 years.
“What we’re talking about doing is making that transition in 30 years,” Hoover said. “It’s never been done before.”
But it seems possible with the rapid advances in technology. And right now, it actually saves school money. Messiah is paying less for utilities than eight years ago, despite adding about 90,000 square feet of buildings. Staff developed a solar thermal system that heats water for 500 students who live on campus and paid particular attention to energy efficiency.
“The savings are there,” said Bradley Markley, director of facilities services at Messiah.
And that’s just a bonus.
The school also fulfills its Christian mission. At Messiah, the concern for climate change is linked to the tradition of the Brothers of the school, with its historic commitment to peace. Climate change and energy shortages lead to violence, Hoover said. According to the UN, an annual average of 21.5 million people have been displaced by extreme weather events since 2008, and if extreme weather events worsen as predicted, the consequences for human suffering could be disastrous.
Christ’s call to his followers to be peacemakers also applies to the care of creation.
“We see reconciliation not just between people and people, but between people and place,” Hoover said.
Across the country, more and more Christian schools are drawing up plans to become such a place, where reconciliation shines like the sun, absorbed by solar panels on the roofs of universities.