Spirituality meets solar

St. Anthony in Marathon is answering the Pope’s call for clean energy


St. Anthony Spirituality Center in Marathon City has gone through many changes in its nearly 100-year history, starting out as Capuchin Catholic seminary then several years ago reinventing itself as a retreat center for people of all faith groups. While many other similar, originally religious institutions have struggled after changing their focus—often selling their properties to commercial ventures—St. Anthony has thrived.

But like any nonprofit, St. Anthony always is mindful about continuing to pay its bills. That’s partly why St. Anthony’s director, Deacon Bryan Hilts, spearheaded the installation of 68 solar panels on the retreat center’s property. The investment in clean energy will save thousands of dollars for St. Anthony over the next 30 years. But for Hilts, St. Anthony’s staff, volunteers and supporters, it’s more than just a fiscal measure. Rather, it’s a way to honor the call of Pope Francis.

The Pope’s encyclical has fallen on mostly deaf ears, but it did resonate in Marathon City. About one-third of St. Anthony’s new solar panels are being paid for by local donations

In 2015, the Pope wrote an encyclical calling for a greater use of clean energy to combat climate change. In Laudato Si, the Pope wrote “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.” He called for people of all denominations to accept the warnings of climate change and to work together to slow down the manmade causes.

So far, the Pope’s encyclical has fallen on mostly deaf ears. A study published by the journal Climatic Change last year showed the Pope and his papal letter failed to rally any broad support on climate change among U.S. Catholics and non-Catholics.

But the call did resonate in Marathon City.

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Center Director Deacon Bryan Hilts, as the solar panels were being installed on Wednesday, Aug. 2. Hilts says it’s not only morally and ethically conscientious for an operation such as St. Anthony to embrace renewable energy, it’s also financially responsible

Last year, Hilts installed a 10-kilowatt solar panel array at his farm in Marathon County. He has had an interest in solar energy since he was a child, and says that the Pope’s encyclical, the decreasing cost of solar panels, and few other aligning factors combined to justify St. Anthony’s jump into renewable energy.

About one-third of the solar panels are being paid for through local donations. “It’s been very well received. People think it’s responsible of us to lessen our impact on the environment,” Hilts says.

Hilts says it’s not only morally and ethically conscientious for an operation such as St. Anthony to embrace renewable energy, it’s also financially responsible. The solar panels should save St. Anthony $3,000 a year in electrical costs, and although that might not be 100% of the center’s electrical usage in a given year, it’ll be close.

“In a way, it’s a long-term approach to cost savings,” Hilts says.

A place of peace

One of the many good things St. Anthony’s staff hears about their facility is the sense of peace people feel when they enter the grounds. On the outskirts of Marathon City and surrounded by green, St. Anthony does provide those who go there with what they’re looking for: quietness, peace and relaxation.

“The idea of retreating is to get out the hectic life someone may be in, and to come here and reflect, then reengage back into their lives,” Hilts says.

Throughout its history, quiet has been the operative word for St. Anthony, even when it served as a Capuchin seminary from 1917 to 1970. After World War II, the seminary grew so large the Capuchins built an addition to house what had become a total of 110 student friars, priest friars and lay brothers. The seminary function of St. Anthony was eventually moved to a larger city after the number of students plummeted in the late 1960s, and in part because the church wanted to provide a wider exposure to friars preparing for priesthood. In 1971, “the old monastery,” as locals call it, was turned into a Catholic retreat center.

Then in 2013, the Capuchin order that owned St. Anthony since 1917 announced they would no longer be able to staff the operation. The future of the large, beautifully preserved stately building on the bank of the Big Rib River was in jeopardy. The center was saved when a local group banded together to form the nonprofit St. Anthony’s of Marathon County Inc., and purchased the grounds and the accompanying 40 acres of land.

St. Anthony has stayed relevant by hosting programs that are consistent with Catholic Church teachings (due to St. Anthony’s bylaws) while also serving as a retreat center for people of all faiths. “We have Lutheran pastors who get together and come to our facility and put on their own programs. We have Methodist pastors come out,” Hilts says. “We have a group that focuses on meditation, but I don’t know what denominations they are.”

One of the main reasons St. Anthony is placing the solar panel array in the rear of the building is to maintain the architectural and aesthetic integrity of its beautiful, grand entrance. Hilts doesn’t want to compromise the dramatic view people see of the entire stone and brick structures as visitors enter the driveway and make their way to the facility.

“One of the things I’ve heard from people is that, ‘driving through your gates, I feel a sense of peace.’ That’s a really rewarding comment for us to hear, because what we’re trying to be is a place of peace for people,” Hilts says.

Why solar is booming

Since a rocky beginning, the rise of solar energy in the U.S. has been astonishing. Last year, solar energy accounted for 64% of all new electric generating capacity in the first quarter of the year. Per GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association, U.S. homes and businesses installed 14.5 gigawatts of solar energy in 2016—nearly double the previous record of 7.5 gigawatts in 2015. The total capacity of U.S. solar power now is enough to power 8.7 million homes.

Why are so many homes, businesses, and cities moving to solar energy? The answer can be found about 23 miles from St. Anthony, at Stoney Acres Farm near Athens. For owner Tony Schultz, it was an easy decision. “The market just came into such alignment that not only is (moving to solar energy) financially possible, it’s financially logical,” Schultz says.

Schultz installed an 8.5-kilowatt solar array at Stoney Acres in 2013. Technically, he did fork over $32,000 for its installation, but after receiving a few grants, accelerated depreciation, and tax write-offs, his actual costs were $7,600. In four years, Schultz has already made up all of his starting costs, and estimates he saves nearly $200 on every monthly electrical bill he receives.

“I’m getting a 9% return on my solar panels,” Schultz says. “My roof has the ability for a 14-kilowatt system, so I plan to expand to that and completely eliminate my bills. I would never have an energy bill again and I want to do that in two years.”

Midwest Renewable Energy Association Executive Director Nick Hylla says 9% is the average rate of return for a solar installation and the cost of energy per watt is the lowest he’s ever seen it. Last year, the average residential install for solar energy was $3.50/watt, but in Central Wisconsin, the average was $2.50/watt.

In Central Wisconsin, there are more than 60 businesses and more than 300 homes that have installed solar system. Hylla says those numbers continue to grow every year. “If you look at the solar leaders nationally, it’s Walmart, Walgreens, Kohl’s—they’re not doing it necessarily for environmental reasons but rather to diversify their portfolio and to save money on energy costs,” Hylla says.

Stoney Acres Farm installed solar panels in 2013, and in four years has made up all of the starting costs. Schultz plans to expand the system so that the farm will completely eliminate its electric bills.

With those types of returns, the question could be changed to: Why haven’t more homes, businesses, and cities gone to solar energy?

Changes to federal grant programs could be one of the reasons, says Doug Stingle, sales consultant for North Wind Renewable Energy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has altered its REAP Grant Program in the last 18 months, so solar projects don’t score as high as they once did, in terms of financial returns. REAP was one of the grants Schultz used to fund his solar project.

However, there are still ways for homes, business, and cities to recoup some of the start-up costs of solar energy, as taxable entities are still eligible for 30% federal tax credit and Wisconsin Public Service offers Focus on Energy grants.

Hylla says that could soon disappear. The federal tax credit starts to decrease in 2019 and completely goes away in 2021. “Could the Trump administration and sitting majority in Congress end the tax credit? Yeah, they could,” Hylla says. “I don’t think there’s a type of ideology that wants to get rid of tax credits, but there’s going to be tax reform and that could be on the table.”

St. Anthony received $13,600 from a Focus on Energy grant, which helped pave the way for the set up of its array. Hilts estimated the total cost of the solar panels and their installation is $45,000, and St. Anthony has nearly half of that paid off already. About one-third of the 68, $500 panels are sponsored by an individual connected to St. Anthony in some way, whether they’re already a benefactor, volunteer, someone who lives onsite, or just attends the programs St. Anthony offers.

The solar panel array isn’t large enough to cover all of St. Anthony’s energy costs—the three-story building with 80 guest rooms is larger than most schools. But in the summer months when the sun is strong and long, solar arrays often produce more energy than a building can use. That extra energy St. Anthony creates will go back into the power grid, Hilts says.

“The sun is finite and it’s going to burn out someday, but it certainly is a greater source of energy than fossil fuels are. My main motivating reason is to lessen the impact of our facility on the environment,” Hilts says. “It is a financial advantage. To me, it’s almost like having a trust fund at St. Anthony that pays $3,000 toward my light bill. That’s a nice thing worth having.”