Nonprofits and Sustainability

Church opts for solar panels

Plymouth UCC leaders were pleasantly surprised by project’s ROI.

February 13, 2015
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When the time came for Plymouth United Church of Christ to consider options for a roof replacement, someone suggested the congregation should invest in solar panels.

“I actually started the process as probably the lead skeptic in our group,” said Douglas Donnell, who serves on the church’s board of trustees and is an attorney at Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones.

“I truly thought we would determine, and in fairly short order, that they would not make financial sense.”

But Donnell has since seen the light.

“Plymouth UCC did decide to go forward with the panels, and we will be installing this summer,” he said.

Donnell said there were a couple of things that brought him around. First, the numbers added up.

“The price of solar panels has been dropping fairly markedly,” he said. “In fact, from the beginning of our investigation through the end of it, the estimates had gone from about $45,000 for a 10 kilowatt array, down to about $38,000, and by the time we install this summer, I am told to expect it might go down as low as $30,000.”

Plymouth UCC expects to see a return on its investment within approximately 12 years, and Donnell noted the solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years.

The other thing Donnell said surprised him was how effective solar panels can be in Michigan — which is not typically thought of as the sunniest of states.

“Though we think of Michigan as not an ideal place for solar panels to be used to generate electricity, the truth of the matter is Michigan is only about 7 percent less in terms of available solar energy from the sun than Florida,” he explained. “There are actually vast areas of the United States that are well suited to solar, and Michigan is among them.”

Finally, he said making a statement on sustainability and being a good steward of the planet is important and something the church wanted to do.

Although Plymouth UCC did not take advantage of any tax incentives, Donnell said it could have and he advises other churches or nonprofits with tax-exempt status that might be interested in solar energy to consider their options.

He said the process is slightly cumbersome and requires an individual or group of individuals to serve as the investor or investor group.

“It requires an individual with the organization to form a limited liability corporation or some kind of corporate entity to actually own the solar array — all the solar equipment — and to maintain it,” he explained.

“It would get the tax credit and then could lease the equipment to the nonprofit, and at some point in time, once the investor has been repaid by the church or nonprofit in the form of lease payments as well as the benefits of the tax credits, transfer the hardware to the nonprofit.”

Donnell said there are several types of tax credits and incentives available, the biggest of those coming from the federal government, which offers a 30 percent tax credit without an upper limit on the cost of purchasing and installing solar panels. It’s available for both commercial and residential use, he added.

Though that credit is currently slated to expire in December 2016, if President Barack Obama’s proposed 2016 budget is approved, it may be extended.

“He is proposing to have that become a permanent tax credit and to have it extend beyond December 2016,” Donnell said.

There are also various state, local and utility programs that can assist or provide incentives for solar projects.

“There are a high number of them available in Michigan,” Donnell noted.

The U.S. Department of Energy and the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center provide a website,, with a state-by-state listing of available tax credits and incentives.

“It really does depend upon your community and the specifics of your projects, if you qualify or not,” Donnell said.

Donnell advises any business or nonprofit to consider taking the solar energy route.

“It really is an area where I think we are going to see more and more companies do it because what was financially prohibitive even five years ago is not anymore,” he said.  “I think given the choice, a lot of people would choose the sustainable planet route as opposed to continued reliance on fossil fuels.”

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