Sisters turn to Brother Sun for energy

Solar plan expected to save 30% on annual electrical costs

by Renae Bauer
published Winter 2014

Conserving energy today and leaving plenty to share tomorrow motivated our Sisters to embark on one of the largest solar energy efforts in Wisconsin.

The Sisters installed a 112 kilowatt (kW) solar photovoltaic system - among the top 25 largest in the state -- south of their Motherhouse at 3110 Nicolet Drive. Not only will the system reduce the Sisters' utility costs by approximately 30 percent (see our real-time meter) but it will be a concrete way to express one of their Franciscan values to care for God's creation.

"As Franciscans, we are committed to caring for all of God's creation," says Sister Donna Koch, Community President. "We are energized by the prospect of reducing our carbon footprint as well as sharing this knowledge so that others can better care for our earth."

True to their founding mission to teach, this Franciscan community will incorporate an educational component at the solar panel site. Tentative plans include a walking path through the solar panel site with educational plaques explaining how solar photovoltaic power is captured and converted. People who cannot come onsite can still learn about the construction of the solar panels through a two-minute time-lapse video and see how much energy the panels are generating through a real-time meter that will be added to the Sisters' website, gbfranciscans.org.

"We hope the community, school groups and businesses will find the site educational and will be inspired to think creatively about how to reduce their carbon footprint or implement alternative energy sources," says Sister Donna.

The solar photovoltaic system will produce 147,000 kW annually, which is equivalent to the electrical needs of 14 houses. Even on cloudy days, the solar panels will produce power between 10 and 25 percent of its capacity.

The decision to install solar panels caps a yearlong process during which the Sisters researched several alternative energy sources. "Solar photovoltaic was selected because it best met our requirements to reduce our carbon footprint in a cost-effective manner," says Sister Rose Jochmann, Community Treasurer and a member of the research committee.

The project is possible through a generous estate gift from Evaleen and Joseph Neufeld, the contributions of donors, and a grant received from Focus on Energy, a statewide energy efficiency and renewable resource program operated by Wisconsin utilities. It was recently named runner-up in the 2014 Interfaith Power & Light Cool Congregations Challenge (Cool Planner category). The Sisters expect the solar panels to pay for themselves in about 10 years. Over their lifetime (about 20 to 25 years) the panels are expected to save the Sisters more than $500,000 in utility costs.

Installation of the solar panels is another step the Sisters have taken to reduce their carbon footprint. When the Sisters built their 51,500-square-foot motherhouse in 2006 (capacity of 35 residents), conservation features were implemented, including:

  • Reduce energy consumption with energy-efficient lighting and heating systems with 90 percent efficient boilers
  • Maximize natural daylight and reduce heating and cooling needs with energy-efficient windows including a 15-foot-wide skylight
  • Save water with adjustable water consumption toilets
  • Pretreat storm water runoff in vegetated swales to remove contaminants and 80 percent of sediments
  • Protect and enhance natural surroundings through earth-friendly landscaping efforts such as reduced lawn areas, no-mow flowering prairies, and native plants to eliminate irrigation

Stay in touch -- This story originally appeared in the Sisters' newsletter. Subscribe to our FREE printed newsletter (issued five times a year) and our FREE e-spiritual reflections (weekly). We enjoy hearing from you so visit our "Send a Greeting to Sister" page and say hello. Thank you and God bless!

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As one of the largest solar photovoltaic systems in the state, not only will we save money and reduce our carbon footprint, we hope to inspire others to consider renewable resources. (Renae Bauer photo)