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Durango church sees the (sun)light, goes full solar

$50,000 project finished last week with help of community groups
About 92 solar panels were installed on a rooftop at First Presbyterian Church at 12th Street and East Third Avenue. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

The First Presbyterian Church at 12th Street and East Third Avenue went “off the grid” Friday when it flipped the switch on its new assortment of solar panels.

Saturday marked the first full day the church relied solely on solar power energy to fuel its electrical infrastructure, which includes all interior and exterior lighting, sprinkler systems, the facility’s handicap-compliant elevator and “everything” else, said church Administrator Dave Shew.

“It was a little more expensive of a project than one you would look for in the yellow pages, but we really like the concept of communities helping communities,” Shew said.

The project cost for materials and labor totaled about $50,000.

The playground and courtyard area at First Presbyterian Church is where Solar Barn Raising volunteers accessed the building rooftop where nearly 100 solar panels were installed this summer. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

It had been Pastor Beau Smith’s dream to convert to the renewable energy provided by solar panels, Shew said. Two years ago, a New Mexico couple donated a piece of property to the church. The church sold the property and put the money toward the solar panels.

The board approved the proposal, and the church got to work researching companies to lend assistance in the solar panel installation, which began in mid-June. The church contacted Solar Barn Raising, a Durango-based solar panel installation nonprofit group that serves the Four Corners.

Solar Barn Raising used the help of engineering students from Fort Lewis College. Shew said the nonprofit group is the brainchild of John Lyle, who was on-site to lead the installation process.

The church also enlisted the help of eight AmeriCorps volunteers, parishioners and church staff members, and other community volunteers. Participants worked with Solar Barn Raising on the roof and learned the process of solar panel installation.

Shew said including the community and the learning process was loads of fun.

Church Administrator Dave Shew scales a ladder leading to the rooftop where solar panels were installed in June. (Chrsitian Burney/Durango Herald)

By late July, wiring and electrical hookups were completed. Licensing and government approvals were carried out through August and September.

There were some delays in acquiring materials and getting the right approvals, which pushed the projected end date from late August to late September, but eventually everything fell into place.

“It was turned on Friday,” Shew said. “We finally got the state inspection and the LPEA inspection, the fire department inspection.”

Shew said the solar panels produced about 246 kilowatts Saturday, which is much more power than the facility relies on on a daily basis.

“We run by a lot less than 246 in a day,” Shew said. “So we’ll be storing it up for a rainy day, as they say. We have batteries in place.”

Ninety-two solar panels were installed in June at the First Presbyterian Church. The panels power three church facilities, including the administrative and church services buildings. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Shew said that as he understands the technical process, the batteries can store excess energy that the church could potentially also sell back to La Plata Electric Association should it choose to.

“We use quite a bit of electricity when we’re up and running,” Shew said. “We’re kind of slow in returning to full usage, but outside users are pretty plentiful.”

The Presbyterian Church hosts four Al-Anon groups and two Alcoholics Anonymous groups, Shew said, in addition to ballroom dancing and cooks.

“The 9-R school system uses our kitchen a lot,” he said. “Adaptive Sports uses our space because we are elevator handicap compliant.”

The Durango First Presbyterian Church building is one of the longest standing buildings in town, Shew said. The early Protestant church was organized in May 1882. Its cornerstone was laid June 13, 1889.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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