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Solar energy sector gets reboot with new installations at Riverhead church

From left, Mike Bailis of SUNation joins Ryan

From left, Mike Bailis of SUNation joins Ryan Madden of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, the Rev. Hickman Alexandre of Grace Episcopal Church and Anthony Natale of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island at the solar panel unveiling at the church's David's School in Riverhead on Thursday.  Credit: Morgan Campbell

In one small signal of a gradually rebounding renewable energy sector in the COVID-19 era, contractors this month completed a 405-panel solar-energy system on the roof of an elementary school of the Grace Episcopal Church in Riverhead.

The $216,000 system, capable of producing 85.5 kilowatts, enough to power around 15 homes, was paid for by the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, along with a $20,000 grant from the San Diego-based nonprofit Left Coast Fund. The system was built by contractor SUNation Solar Systems of Ronkonkoma as part of a PowerUp Solar Long Island initiative by the Long Island Progressive Coalition and Resonant Energy.

The pandemic largely closed the doors of solar installers in March, idling thousands of workers pausing a business sector that has seen outsize growth in the past decade. Businesses began returning to work in June, but with reduced workforces, limitations on in-person sales calls and fewer government incentives, the return to business has been gradual.

"We’re trying to rebuild to the numbers we had" prior to COVID-19, said Mike Bailis, vice president and co-founder of SUNation, but "it’s going to take a while to get back to those former levels."

The Grace Church system, which went live this month, produces enough energy to power all the church’s energy needs, along with around 60% of its Saint David’s School and a "remote-net metered" link to the diocese’s Mercer School of Theology in Garden City. Construction took place from June until September but planning and applications took more than a year, officials said.

The church as a nonprofit entity can’t get the benefit of a 26% federal tax credit available for homes and businesses, and there were no LIPA/PSEG rebates available for the project, but the Power Up Solar initiative works to facilitate bulk buying discounts and other incentives for houses of worship. Seven such projects have already been completed to date as part of PowerUp.

Ryan Madden, sustainability organizer for the Long Island Progressive Coalition, a community-based environmental justice organization, said the project, "which came to completion during this public health crisis, demonstrates how renewable energy can play a vital role in the region’s economic recovery and the pandemic-induced economic crisis."

"With the decline of residential solar during this time, commercial projects like this are a pathway forward in the complex recovery landscape of COVID-19," Madden said.

The Rev. Hickman Alexandre of Grace Church said the replacement of the roof at the school last year facilitated the work, which he said had its origins in the core belief of the church.

"This is a statement we’re making," he said Thursday morning at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new array. . "If you look around at what’s happening in the world, you see the impact of human interaction with God’s created order, [so] tapping into the resources that God has given us, I mean, what’s more natural than the sun?"

He said the diocese "would be happy to replicate this on some of our other properties.

Anthony Natale, construction manager for the diocese, said the project, a first paid for by the diocese, won’t be the last. (Episcopal churches in Smithtown and Huntington have self-funded solar installations, he said.)

"We’re looking at every possible option," he said, adding that even battery storage units for churches are "not off the table."

"Money saved on operations means we have more money for outreach and ministry to the community," Natale said, speaking for the Right Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, the Episcopalian Bishop of Long Island. "But the meaning of project goes beyond the economic benefits. As Episcopalians the care of creation is fundamental to our living out the mission of Christ."

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