Community Church Unitarian Universalist (CCUU) of Lakeview was flooded with eight feet of water when the 17th Street Canal levee broke on August 29, 2005. Six years later, the church is making a major comeback as the first Energy Star-rated, solar-powered church in the United States.
"There was an enormous amount of discussion as to what to do, and the members made the commitment to rebuild in Lakeview," says Howard Mielke, president of CCUU's board of trustees. "Then we talked about how we could make a difference in terms of our attitude toward and respect for the city and our own church, and we started talking about energy efficiency."
Mielke says church members were inspired by Joseph Priestley, an 18th-century British chemist who discovered oxygen and carbon dioxide in the air. Priestley also was a theologian who helped found Unitarianism.
"He was also all for freedom of thought, something our members really embody, so it was important to us to put all options on the table," Mielke says. "We talked about geothermal and solar panels, but we faced the reality that as a nonprofit, we weren't going to get any tax deductions for doing that. Then it was brought to my attention that there was a grant out there."
CCUU enlisted local firm Solar Alternatives to help create a green and sustainable architectural design, and applied for a stimulus clean energy grant established by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Though the church received no funding initially, it decided to apply a second time and was successful.
"I had met some of the board members of the church personally, and we started talking about their vision for green building, and we gave them some designs and guidance," says Jeff Cantin, founder and president of Solar Alternatives. "The second time we applied for the grant, we changed the design from geothermal to solar panels."
By that time, the church already had raised one-third of the money needed to purchase and install the panels. The grant money provided for most of the remaining costs.
"Some people from around the country also donated money, and then we made our decision to go ahead with the project," Mielke says.
After more discussion about installation details and engineering processes, Solar Alternatives finally got "boots on the ground" in late July. "All the panels are up," Mielke says. "We're just waiting for Entergy to put in the required meter."
Now, he added, church members are excited about their new relationship to their surroundings. "Everyone was really supportive, because instead of using fossil fuels to heat and cool, we'll be using energy from the sun, which will provide 80 percent of the power for the church," Mielke says.
According to Cantin, the Energy Star certification goes beyond the solar panels. "It means they are getting energy from a clean source, and that they're thinking in bigger terms than just solar panels," he says. "If they are smart about energy habits, they will increase the percentage of energy that they get from solar."
The design, he says, blends in with the church's architecture and "keeps a low profile aesthetically." The panels are "very low-maintenance," he says, and should last from 25 to 45 years.
Meanwhile, the church has an annex building that needs a new roof, and its members are thinking solar. "We're giving them some guidance on that right now," Cantin says. "They're inspired by this project to look a little further."
In Mielke's opinion, it is just another component of a greater mission: "It's part of an ongoing commitment to trying to make a more environmentally friendly Lakeview."