BAY SETTLEMENT — True to their religious community’s founder, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross continue to care for God’s creation of Mother Earth. On Aug. 28, the sisters held a dedication and blessing of 280 solar panels located behind their motherhouse. Along with 416 panels that were installed in 2014, the community of 50 sisters now draws 50% of their convent’s electrical power from the sun.
“The sisters are real educators,” said Bishop David Ricken, who joined the sisters and special guests for the morning celebration and blessed the new panels with holy water. “Part of their charism as Franciscans is to follow the principles of St. Francis, who loved creation so much,” he told The Compass. “So they are real educators in how we are using energy and making our lives more sustainable so the next generation can benefit.”
Sr. Ann Rehrauer, community president, told guests in her welcome address that — thanks to grants from Focus on Energy ($58,932) and RENEW Wisconsin’s Solar for Good program ($20,000), along with gifts from more than 30 donors and an estate gift — the new solar panels will allow the sisters to increase their solar energy output from 28% to 50% of their electrical needs.
“Our community strives every day to live more sustainably,” said Sr. Rose Jochmann, who is chair of the community’s sustainability committee. “We want to make choices that will use our earth’s resources wisely and care for the earth.”
Another choice Sr. Rose cited is the sisters’ motherhouse, built in 2004, which took advantage of features such as energy-efficient lighting and 90% efficient boilers.
“For both of the (solar panel) projects, you look at the cost and say, ‘I don’t know if we can do that,’ but we valued the statement that our solar panels would make: We want to use less of the earth’s resources; we want to care for our earth,” she told guests attending the dedication. “So, we installed the solar panels, creating energy that’s completely green and is not producing any pollution.”
Both solar panel arrays were made in the United States, said Sr. Rose, and installed by Eland Electric. Cost of the original array was $286,000. The new addition cost about 20% less ($228,900) than the first panels.
Sr. Rose said the original solar panels are each rated at 270 watts. “Over those five years, we saved over $60,000 and we offset almost 500 tons of carbon emissions,” she said, “so we are trying to do our part to reduce our carbon footprint.”
According to Sr. Rose, the efficiency and cost of solar panels have improved in five years. The new array of 280 solar panels are rated at 350 watts each, take up less space than the original 416 panels and produce nearly the same amount of energy, she said.
The entire solar panel investment will be paid for in utility cost savings in 15 years, according to the sisters.
Another goal of the solar panel project was to educate the community about renewable energy and solar energy in particular, said Sr. Rose. An educational path was built around the panels in 2014. “The path is open daily to the public, so people can come and have a self-guided tour,” she said.
The path includes seven plaques that explain how solar energy is produced, why it was chosen and whether solar energy is a good choice in a cold climate. Sr. Rose said that about 500 people have come to see the panels since 2014.
Following a prayer and blessing of the solar panels by Bishop Ricken, a “flipping of the switch” ceremony was held, with Srs. Mary Kabat and Lynne Marie Simonich turning on electrical power from the new panels.
The path is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays from May to October. Additional tour information, along with a four-minute virtual tour and an hourly energy production meter, which measures how much electricity the solar panels generate by the hour, are posted online at gbfranciscans.org.
VIEW MORE PHOTOS: To view photos from the solar panel blessing, visit our Flickr page.