How an Iowa Catholic Church is Staying Cool With The Sun

By: Stephen Bybee |

At St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Norwalk, Iowa, the hot sun of an Iowa summer is now being used to cool the congregation.  Responding to Pope Francis’ 2015 environmental encyclical, calling on the faithful to be better stewards of the earth’s environment, St. John parishioner and solar developer Terry Dvorak began investigating the possibility of a solar installation for his church.  After a trip to China opened his eyes to the dangers of air pollution, Dvorak started a business in solar power development in 2010.

His Norwalk-based business, Red Lion Renewables, specializes in solar design, installation and consultancy.  After some negotiations and fundraising, Dvorak found a group of investors who were able to raise the nearly $200,000 required to purchase and install the 60 kWh solar array necessary to offset the church’s energy usage.  Since installing the 206 rooftop solar panels in June, St. John the Apostle has realized an expected energy savings of around $2,000 annually.  Bishop Robert Pates, head of the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa is now urging other parishes to research and consider solar and other renewable energy initiatives as a component of their infrastructure.

Michael Zamorra/Des Moines Register via AP

Michael Zamorra/Des Moines Register via AP

Another Iowa group that firmly supports the development and undertaking of solar power initiatives in the faith-based community is Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, an ecumenical organization whose stated mission is:  “mobilizing the religious community to become leaders in the movement for climate action through education, assistance with carbon footprints reductions, and advocacy for sustainable energy policies.”  They focus on programs designed to reduce energy usage, address urban and rural food insecurity, and to teach congregations how to lower the volume of their landfill contribution.

Their commitment to teaching Iowa’s church leaders how to harness the potential of solar energy is evident in their publication entitled:  “Faith in Solar: Solar Financing Models, Resources, and Success Stories for Congregations and Faith Communities.” This guide contains accounts of six different Iowa religious institutions successfully adopting and installing onsite solar installations.  Each account includes a discussion of why the congregation decided to go solar, how they researched different solar possibilities and contractors in the state of Iowa, and how they approached the fundraising for such an ambitious project.  Solar installation financing models are listed, including the PPA (power purchase agreement) that the members of St. John’s parish used to fund their own solar panels.  There is also a list of congregation-friendly solar installers working in Iowa to give solar-curious congregants a starting point when they finally decide to make a commitment to solar power.

According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Iowa’s “distributed solar capacity has grown 32%” from the year 2014 to the year 2015. By the end of 2016 Iowa had installed the infrastructure to produce just over 45 megawatts of electricity from solar power. The technical potential for solar production in Iowa is somewhere in the range of 4000 gigawatts, according to the Iowa Environmental Council, a group that lobbies for “clean water, clean energy, and a healthy climate.” While it has a long way to go to realize its full solar power potential, the state of Iowa is taking solid, determined steps in that direction.

Disclosure: Iowa Environmental Council is a client of Newz Group