Powered by the sun
La Verne’s future gets brighter with solar energy.
by Christina Collins Burton
photography by Hunter Cole
Glinting in the sunlight, the smooth reflective surface of 70 large panels basks in the sunshine. They have been positioned carefully to absorb the optimum amount of sunlight on top of the Fellowship Hall at the La Verne Church of the Brethren. These panels work everyday to ensure that the Church of the Brethren does not leave a large carbon footprint. While they do not work at night, they are capable of working individually when part of the system is blocked by shade. Looking more like giant blue-black mirrors than a complicated piece of technology, the solar panels provide an alternative method to generate electricity.
Solar power is one type of energy generating source that has been spreading in the city of La Verne. With the most recent large installation on the Church of the Brethren Fellowship Hall rooftop and increasing installation on private homes, the city is starting to look at a sunny future.
Near the heart of old town, the La Verne Church of the Brethren calls itself “a progressive church…with a pipe organ.” It is known for its forward thinking acceptance of all persons into worship while still maintaining a sense of tradition. According to its mission statement, the Brethren seek to manage resources wisely, which includes the proper upkeep and enhancement of their facilities. Striving to stay with these ideals, the Church completed its solar panel installation Sept. 21, 2012, making its buildings almost 100 percent solar powered. The system makes 98.7 percent of the electricity the Church uses. Conservation steps, such as constantly turning off lights, offsets the remaining 1.3 percent of energy not generated. The only time the Church has to swap over to use electricity is during fully overcast days or if events take place at night. Then, the Church switches from solar to ground lines and is provided electricity through Southern California Edison. At other times, the excess energy produced goes back to Edison, and the Church reaps the financial benefits.
For six years, Church leadership considered going solar, but their plan for sustainability was put on hold. Then, Daniel Snowden-Ifft, a Church friend, approached former property chair Michael Wolfsen about a possible energy alternative. “Pretty much on the spot, she deputized me to organize a solar subcommittee and to look for others to team it,” Daniel says, laughing. He quickly gathered Church members who not only had a personal interest in solar energy but also had historical knowledge of the Church plant infrastructure. The subcommittee reviewed the pricing and panel placement. Instead of being met with obstacles, they breezed right through the steps. Previous research assisted the committee in finding the needed resources. On top of being fully informed, the dramatic price drop for panels during the six-year period helped make the decision to swap to solar energy a no-brainer. Still, there was money involved, and funding needed to be solved. The panels could not be a financial burden on the Church. Fortunately, the Pacific Southwest District of the Church of the Brethren had just sold property—a second-hand shop. The solar committee requested a loan and received the money with 5 percent interest over 15 years. The Edison solar conversion incentive programs made installation a reality. Following, the Church easily passed the SCE evaluation meaning it could power up on its own energy. Since, it has thrived on solar energy. During the week of March 14, 2013, the Church hit a big milestone and produced its first 100 megawatt hours of electricity. “First light is what we call it,” Daniel says.
Living with solar energy
“Come in, we will use solar energy to light our interview,” says Jay Jones, University of La Verne professor of biology and biochemistry. Jay is a proponent of sustainability and alternative energy usage for everyday life. In 2008, he had a six solar panel system installed on a second story above his Upland home garage. At that time, his system purchase and installation cost an estimated $40,000. His electricity bill is now mere dollars a month, and only once has he had to pay more than $100 for a monthly bill when the system needed panels replaced. Jay was taken aback by the high bill because his solar panel system kept his payments so low.
Deborah Olson, associate professor of management and leadership at La Verne, also had panels installed on her home. Her 22, 240 watt panels went live Jan. 3. The system cost about $23,000, but with rebates from the state and the federal net return, the Olsons were able to gain back 30 percent on their investment. “We are committed to doing this from an environmental standpoint but also for expenses,” Deborah says. Southern California Edison offers rebates for converting homeowners. With its net energy metering, solar owners receive credit for electricity produced. “The procedure is pretty complicated; if you want the rebate, they have to come out, and you have to outline your specific equipment,” Jay says. When he had his equipment evaluated, his 200 watt panels were only accredited for around 175 watts of energy. The state of California has rated all the panels and does not take the panel wattage at face value. If the owner does not have a southward facing slope on her home, it will evaluate the difference in expected electricity and actual electricity produced. After the evaluation and rebate process, the solar panels are in the hands of their owners to ensure they are working properly. Regular cleanings of the panels are usually necessary. “I could probably increase my productivity by 10 percent if I cleaned them regularly,” says Jay. Since their installation in 2008, he has cleaned his panels twice. Regular cleaning partnered with solar strength makes for high productivity and a better chance toward gaining SCE rebates.“I’m enough of a geologist to know that the possibility of an earthquake is significant. Every time I’m up on a tall ladder, I really don’t like the thought,” he says, shaking his head. Deborah and her husband have a different cleaning regiment for their panels. “Usually, we just hose it down once a week because dust and stuff gets on top of it. We have a one-story house so it is easy.”
Solar installations began to rise about three years ago, according to La Verne’s city principal building inspector John Petty. “Last year was a slight slump, at least for this jurisdiction, but we are seeing it go right back up on the rise again.” He credits the slump and rise to the state of the economy and the incentive programs that have been endorsed by the state. DRH Solar and electrical has installed 16 solar panel systems for La Verne residents alone since including solar energy as an option in 2011. Owner Dan Herrig says that his first experience with installing solar came when a customer asked whether he had done previous solar work. Besides DRH, Solar City and Durango Solar have also been installing solar panel systems in La Verne. The city has also made it easy for home owners to get the panels installed and running. After submitting a request to the Planning Department, customers can usually expect a quick response, with a permit granted after a structural inspection. This inspection looks at the structural integrity of the house since the panels require a sloped surface. Also, the inspection ensures that if any emergencies happen, such as a fire, the panels will not be in the way or add to the destruction of the house.
Every morning as La Verne’s solar panels are struck with the first light of the day, the city of La Verne’s carbon footprint becomes smaller. With more homes gaining solar panels, the city of La Verne works toward a brighter future.