Diocese of San Joaquin nears its renewable energy goal, with 95% reliance on solar power

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 8, 2023
Rice blesses solar panels

San Joaquin Bishop David Rice stands on the roof at St Michael’s Episcopal Church in Ridgecrest, California, to bless one of the diocese’s solar panel installations. Photo courtesy of David Rice

[Episcopal News Service] The Diocese of San Joaquin and its 21 faith communities in California’s Central Valley and Sierra Nevada are close to achieving a key renewable energy goal: In the next month or two, the diocese’s final solar panel installations are expected to go online. With that flip of a switch, an estimated 95% of diocesan energy use will be independent of fossil fuels.

“This is certainly about economics,” Bishop David Rice told Episcopal News Service. Beyond saving money, the diocese also sees its mission as being good stewards of God’s creation, and it is “endeavoring to help the rest of The Episcopal Church come to a similar place.”

The diocese has created an organization it calls the Episcopal Renewable Energy Nonprofit. It is led by Cal Harling, the consultant who oversaw solar panel installation across 14 of the sites where the diocese’s congregations worship. For the other seven sites, solar power wasn’t feasible because their sites were too small or were served by power utilities that didn’t offer the same solar benefits as other utilities in the state.

Despite the challenges at certain cites, Harling told ENS he considers this whole-diocese model a success, and the partnership with an independent developer and financier was “a way to mitigate risk for the diocese.”

He and Rice have been promoting this approach to other Episcopal leaders across the church. In addition to their presentation in July at the It’s All About Love Festival, Harling said he has spoken to about a dozen Episcopal dioceses about what it would take to do something similar to San Joaquin. At least one of those dioceses is close to launching its own solar power initiative.

“Getting a broad base of solar installations and working through that particular process is something that [dioceses] are not geared up to do, nor would they necessarily have the specific knowledge to do so,” Harling said. Through Episcopal Renewable Energy Nonprofit, San Joaquin offers those dioceses “a methodology that would allow them to accelerate getting solar on their sites on a broad basis.”

San Joaquin began its investment in solar almost from time Rice was installed as diocesan bishop in November 2017. The following year, for example, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bakersfield added solar panels to the top of a new structure over its parking lot. Other congregations had only limited space in which to install new panels, but even smaller projects are generating renewable power.

Solar is just one of the many ways Episcopalians can harness renewable energy and decrease their carbon footprint, as summarized in online resources compiled by The Episcopal Church. San Joaquin focused primarily on solar power because of the diocese’s location. Cloudy days are the exception in California’s Central Valley. Fresno, the largest city in the diocese, boasts an average of 267 days a year with clear or partly cloudy skies.

To maximize its impact, the diocese planned on a scale similar to that available to large commercial companies that have multiple warehouses with roofs primed for solar panels. Rather than individual Episcopal congregations pursuing their own solar power projects, the diocese was able to negotiate a broader financing deal with its solar power partners for a regional project.

Under this model, the diocese worked with one developer, Fellowship Energy, and four different utilities that serve the region. The participating churches provided the locations for solar panels, Fellowship Energy committed to funding and installing the panels, and the utilities agreed to acquire the energy generated by the project for a fixed rate over a 20 to 30 year period.

Now, Harling is working with Fellowship Energy on connecting the last two solar panel installations – at Church of the Saviour in Hanford and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Visalia – to the power grid. At some of the 14 locations, the solar panels will generate all the power the congregations need. Excess power generated will help offset some of the energy used by the other seven without solar, allowing the diocese to reach its 95% renewable energy goal.

Since San Joaquin began its solar power initiative, other dioceses and congregations across The Episcopal Church have pursued their own individual solar projects. Northern California Bishop Megan Traquair, for example, blessed solar panels at the Episcopal Church of St. Martin in Davis in an April 2021 ceremony. Alabama Bishop Glenda Curry took her turn in October 2021, blessing solar panels at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Vestavia Hills.

Other local examples stretch from San Diego to the Diocese of Massachusetts, and as record heat scorched the country last summer, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church and Preschool in Mandeville, Louisiana, touted the completion of its installation of 80 solar panels on the roof of one parish building.

Although short-term local weather fluctuations cannot be attributed entirely to human-caused global warming, scientists say longer-term climate patterns and the increased frequency and intensity of severe weather is connected to industrialized countries’ long reliance on energy from burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon into the atmosphere. One part of the solution is investing in clean, renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.

Rice on roof

The Diocese of San Joaquin worked with a developer and several power utilities to install solar panels at 14 diocesan sites, including Church of the Saviour in Hanford, California. Once the last installations are online, the diocese will be 95% powered by renewable energy. Photo courtesy of David Rice

The 80th General Convention endorsed the turn away from carbon-based energy when it met in July 2022, passing Resolution A087 on “net carbon neutrality.” Among the resolution’s provisions, it encouraged “parishes, dioceses, schools, camps and other Episcopal institutions to pursue their own goal of net carbon neutrality by 2030 through a combination of reducing emissions from travel, reducing energy use, increasing energy efficiency in buildings, and purchasing offsets from duly investigated, responsible, and ethical partners.”

Rice said he is encouraged by the efforts already underway across the church – and by the interest so far in San Joaquin’s solar power model.

“I think in terms of creation care initiatives in The Episcopal Church, the heart is there,” he told ENS. “People want to reduce their carbon footprint. People want to take care of Mother Earth. People want to be part of the solution.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.