Religiously environmental: Chapel Hill church joins clean energy movement

Posted 7/5/19

CHAPEL HILL — Church in the Pines is tucked back in the woods along the Great Ridge Parkway in the Briar Chapel neighborhood, a church that certainly lives up to its name.

But while the …

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Religiously environmental: Chapel Hill church joins clean energy movement

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CHAPEL HILL — Chapel in the Pines is tucked back in the woods along the Great Ridge Parkway in the Briar Chapel neighborhood, a church that certainly lives up to its name.

But while the sanctuary is dotted with wood beams, and there’s a definite forest influence on the construction, the church is in the midst of a decidedly 21st-century upgrade to its buildings: solar panels.

Chapel in the Pines recently installed 110 panels on two of its buildings with the goal of producing 48,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year, and church officials say it’s both an economical and a religious decision.

The project was initiated by church treasurer Jerry Wehmueller, who says he has had a long interest himself in renewable energy. He learned about a program run by Duke Energy where nonprofits, along with businesses and homeowners, can get a rebate on a solar system of 75 cents per kilowatt. He calculated that the credit would cover around 30 percent of a system’s cost. Additionally, the Presbyterian Church USA, Chapel in the Pines’ denomination, operates a fund to lend congregations funds for these types of systems.

“When I combined the two, I said, ‘This not only makes good sense from the point of taking care of the earth, which we were just getting into, but economically, I think that might work,’” Wehmueller said. “When I doodled with it, it came out (that) we don’t have any money in this thing.”

The solar panel installation falls in line with Chapel in the Pines’ push to embrace earth-saving efforts. In March, the church was designated as an Earth Care Congregation by the PCUSA, a designation given to churches that pledge “to integrate environmental practices and thinking into all facets of its church life and completed projects and activities in the fields of worship, education, facilities and outreach.”

It’s all a part of what the Rev. Andrew Taylor-Troutman, the church’s pastor, said is a theological concept called “stewardship.”

“We believe that God not only created the world, and gives it to us as a gift, but is also active and invested in this work,” he said. “So we then are called to be what we call ‘stewards.’ Stewardship is a word that entails a kind of partnership — not that we’re equals with God, but that we have a responsibility as part of our worship of God to have gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given and then do everything we can to sustain and maintain them.”

Chapel in the Pines is not alone, even in Chatham County. In February 2018, Pittsboro Presbyterian Church installed a 43-panel solar array on its roof designed to produce 16,991 kilowatt hours of energy each year. According to Pittsboro Presbyterian’s website, the installation was the end result of work done by the church’s Eco-Justice group.

“It is their belief that at this critical moment in history, caring for Creation means becoming wise and vocal energy evangelists,” the website states. “It is their hope that the solar panel installation will not only reduce the church’s dependence on fossil fuel based energy and cut electrical energy costs, but will also inspire and energize others to ‘go solar,’ and to do so sooner rather than later.”

Chapel in the Pines stands to benefit financially as well — the system is slated to save the church $640 a month and $7,680 a year on energy costs. The end goal is to see the church create as much energy through the panels as it uses.

Wehmueller said the system is not operational yet — it still needs to be permitted by the county, and then Duke Energy will come and install a meter — but when it’s ready, surplus power generated will go back to Duke’s grid.

Congregant response has been very positive, according to member Tom Crosby.

“We do feel we are standing up and doing something,” he said. “I do think it’s a source of pride and enthusiasm.”

While Chapel in the Pines is tucked behind some trees, the panels are visible from the winding road out of Briar Chapel. Taylor-Troutman likes that.

“Climate change, that word — it’s so big, it’s so overwhelming,” he said. “What is something that we can actually do that makes a difference? The fact that where I go to church on Sunday morning makes a difference in this issue that affects me all throughout the week is really positive for people.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com and on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

Stewardship is a word that entails a kind of partnership — not that we’re equals with God, but that we have a responsibility as part of our worship of God to have gratitude for the gifts we’ve been given and then do everything we can to sustain and maintain them.

The Rev. Andrew-Taylor Troutman, pastor, Chapel in the Pines

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