Raleigh church goes green for God

sgilman@newsobserver.comMay 14, 2014 

— Water splashes from hoses as people from all over the world – from China to Cuba – tend vegetables on a recent afternoon in the community garden at Highland United Methodist Church.

The garden is just one of the ways the church is tending the earth, from replacing old toilets with new low-flow ones, installing low-energy light bulbs and adding 136 solar panels on a flat rooftop. The new panels will be dedicated during the 11 a.m. worship service on June 15.

“Seems appropriate to honor our father’s world on Father’s Day,” said church member and gardener Donna Wolcott. A luncheon will follow, complete with displays and videos of many of the ways the church has endeavored to be a good steward.

Called the “Victory” garden, the crowded plant beds yield more than 2,000 pounds of produce each year. The garden is beloved by many of the English as a Second Language students who meet at the church every week and walk out to tend the garden after class.

“This is my favorite place to work,” said Dongo Bandilimeka, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “I like it.” She gestured with her hands toward the eggplant, lettuce and onions, just a few of her favorite vegetables.

“I also have a garden behind my house, a small garden,” Bandilimeka said.

Jane Gray, church member and gardener, said the project “is really for the ESL students, so they could learn English a little bit better. They can point and we can say, ‘spinach.’”

Wolcott sees the earth-friendly practices at the church as a way to honor what God made.

“The big deal is we really do believe it is God’s creation, and He said it was good,” she said. “And if he said it was good, we had better make sure it stays good. We have an obligation to creation.”

It also is good stewardship of money to install low-flow toilets, Wolcott said. Outside groups frequently use the church, and Wolcott said “that creates a lot of flushing.”

With the low-flow toilets, the church not only received the kickback from the city of Raleigh during the WaterSense rebate program that ended in January, but it also has saved about $400 a month, according to facility manager Tom Lamb.

The solar panels will eventually provide about 15 percent of the church’s electricity, Lamb said. For now, though, the panels are owned by a group of church members who formed a limited liability corporation to take the tax credits unique to solar panels.

“They formed a corporation to take advantage of the tax credits,” Lamb said. “There’s a kind of a no-compete clause, so they cannot give it or sell it to the church.”

The corporation, called Highland Solar, must sell the power to Duke Energy for five years. After that, the individuals can give the panels to the church, which can then directly use the energy they produce. The panels cost the corporation about $127,000.

Set in 21 rows across a flat roof of the church, the panels are in full sun all day, completely unshaded by trees. Even the thin shadow from the church steeple barely touches them. Lamb said they will probably generate about $7,000 worth of power every year.

“These will be producing power for the next 25 years, occupying otherwise empty, useless space,” he said.

Gilman: 919-829-8955

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