Let there be light: St. Eugene now draws power from the sun

Switch on! (from l to r) Bill Maloney, solar project coordinator; Pete McHugh, solar panels team; Fr. Pat Cahill, pastor of St. Eugene. Photo by Warner Photography

Although there were a lot of hurdles in getting the ball rolling with the 147 solar panels that are now active atop the roof of the Parish of St. Eugene, Father Pat Cahill says there were definite signs along that way that he and supporters of the project were on the right track.

One such instance was the surprise news he received from the engineers at MB Haynes Energy Solutions of Asheville, the project’s installers, when they reported that the church, which was built in the 1960s, has a perfectly southward-facing slope — ideal for the placement of solar panels.

“This had to be a sign that things were falling into place,” Cahill says.

Another divine sign was a brief window of sunshine during an otherwise drizzly day as Cahill and supporters ventured outside to cut the ribbon and officially switch on the panels at an Oct. 28 ceremony. The new 46-kilowatt solar setup will provide approximately 25 percent of the electricity the church uses and will be net-metered to sell power back to the grid when not needed by the church.

The pastor applauded Pope Francis, who said earlier this year that climate change is something to be taken seriously, calling for a “bold cultural revolution” to combat it.

“He said the United States should take a hard look at our consumption,” Cahill says. “He said it’s definitely a man-made problem, and something that we contribute to.”

The genesis of the solar panel idea came in July 2014, when a group within the parish said there needed to be a big environmental project undertaken to make a statement. Fundraising for the solar panels was launched in March of this year, the $142,500 goal was reached in September, and construction began soon after. Individual donors covered the cost and installation — nearly $1,000 per panel.

“When we’re doing our jobs on city council, we hear from a lot of people about problems that need fixing,” says Asheville City Council Member Gordon Smith, who represented Mayor Esther Manheimer at the event. “We hear that, and we go and do our best to solve these problems. It’s a whole different thing when a group of people says ‘It’s up to us, we have to take responsibility for this as well.’ When we’re doing our jobs and taking responsibility up there in City Hall, and you’re taking responsibility here for the care of the creation, together we’re going to get so much more done. What you’re doing here is leadership in your community.”

Only around 50 percent of Americans agree with the idea that climate change is man-made, and Father Cahill admits that the message is still a progressive one — even at his own church. He said the project ran into some negativity, but the vast majority supported it.

“[T]his is definitely the first time it’s been presented as part of the social justice teaching of the church,” Cahill says. “It’s historic times. One of the beauties of the Pope’s approach is he invites us to look at all these various aspects of our life and how we can better serve, and how we can be better aware of God, and how we can love our neighbor.”

St. Eugene’s solar-electricity production in real time here. The data refreshes every 30 seconds.

 

 

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About Pat Barcas
Pat is a photojournalist and writer who moved to Asheville in 2014. He previously worked for a labor and social rights advocacy newspaper in Chicago. Email him at pbarcas@gmail.com. Follow me @pbarcas

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