WASHINGTON — The solar energy revolution has come to the Diocese of Stockton, California. Diocesan officials have teamed with a solar energy firm and the Catholic Climate Covenant to offer members of three parishes the chance to begin saving on their electricity bill while raising funds for their parish and local Catholic Charities programs.

Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton kicked off the project Aug. 16 at the Cathedral of the Annunciation, saying the effort gives parishioners the opportunity to add a solar energy system to their homes with little or no upfront costs in an effort to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.

The partnership incudes Sungevity, a developer of rooftop power systems in Oakland, California. The company was founded in 2007 and uses the Internet almost exclusively to market and design solar systems. The company has partnered with dozens of nonprofit organizations to raise funds through referrals by current users.

"This gives parishioners a chance to get involved in solar energy in their homes," Bishop Blaire told Catholic News Service before introducing the program. "They receive a discount and they can either lease or purchase the system. There are all kinds of different ways to make it possible for the average person to save money and reduce the use of energy."

The three parishes formally involved include the cathedral, St. Anthony of Padua in Manteca and Sacred Heart in Patterson. But parishioners anywhere in the diocese are welcome to participate.

The program is designed so that parishioners with even modest incomes can sign up to lease or buy outright a solar system. When a parishioner refers another parishioner for a solar set up, Sungevity contributes $750 -- 50 percent to the parish, 25 percent to the diocesan Catholic Charities and 25 percent to the Catholic Climate Covenant, which helped arrange the program with the diocese.

"We hope to get a lot of referrals," said Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant in Washington. "But more importantly it's an education moment about the need to care for creation and to put into practice what we believe."

Elvira Ramirez, executive director of Catholic Charities of Stockton, said not only will the additional revenues help, but that reducing fossil fuel consumption will help lead to cleaner air and improve people's health.

"It helps get the word out that we care about these things, that it involves everyone," she said.

The Stockton Diocese has long been in the forefront of efforts to promote environmental justice. It has had a staff member devoted to environmental justice for many years, Bishop Blaire said. The poor air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and California's years-long drought has driven the diocese to look at ways to educate people about climate change, air pollution and fossil fuel usage, he said.

"The time has come, and something like this you need to get started on it," the bishop said. "I think working together with the Catholic Climate Covenant, it's just a good time. We feel there's a point we have to begin and show we're really serious about protecting the environment."

Katelyn Roedner Sutter is the diocese's environmental justice program director. She told CNS turning to solar energy can be daunting to homeowners because it is perceived as being a complex process.

"Dan and I really recognize that. Part of our hope here is taking some of the legwork out of going solar and sort of streamline it for people," she said.

"A lot of people, especially in the Catholic community, will be attracted to the fact that this will be a tangible way they can do something every day to care for creation and save some money," Roedner Sutter said. "A lot of people will be attracted to the finances of it, that they can start saving money right away. A lot of people can really use that."

Sungevity's solar systems are most beneficial for homeowners paying at least $100 a month for electricity, said Dermot Hikisch, a Sungevity employee working on the Stockton deal.
About 80 percent of Sungevity customers lease systems, he said, with monthly costs over the 20-year lease ranging from $20 to $100. Under a lease, no upfront payment is required. For an outright purchase, payback typically comes in seven to 12 years, Hikisch said.

"For homeowners or retirees on fixed incomes, with predictable payments per month, solar is a nice way to go for them," he explained.

If a system does not produce as much savings as projected, Sungevity promises to pay the difference to the homeowner.

Even on cloudy days in California and in northern climates where winter weather is the norm for much of the year, the company's systems produce electricity. The only hindrance to a solar system is if a home's roof remains shaded much of the day or gets covered by heavy snow for a day or two, Hikisch said.

"We're really thrilled to be working with Catholic Charities. We're committed to making our partnership work and helping the Diocese of Stockton along the way," he added.