Donnell speaks from experience on solar energy considerations

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Doug Donnell at Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Though Doug Donnell, a managing member of Mika Meyers Beckett and Jones, is a highly successful natural resources and environmental lawyer, he gained insight into renewable energy at a personal level when his church explored the possibility of installing solar panels.

The justice and peace task force of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ asked the board of trustees to consider using solar power to supply some or all of the church’s energy needs, and the trustees agreed to look into it.

Donnell, a trustee, confesses he was surprised at what their investigations turned up. “In spite of being an environmental attorney, I bet I was the biggest skeptic in the whole group,” he says. “I figured we would look at it and realize quickly that it’s not going to be economically feasible and move on. I was surprised when I started looking at the economics.”

The board connected with as many organizations and individuals with expertise as it could find. Donnell says that one in particular, Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, which is part of a national organization promoting green energy for faith-based organizations. “They really have their act together,” he comments.

They also worked with the Ohio Interfaith Power and Light. Donnell, a regular speaker on solar energy, presented at one of the Ohio group’s multi-church meetings recently, where he found out in detail how viable solar energy is in Michigan.

A physics professor also spoke at the meeting, and said that Michigan has only about 7 percent less available sunlight than Florida. The professor showed maps indicating that, while places like Arizona and New Mexico have far greater solar resources than Michigan, most of the country including our state has a plentiful supply, with only the Seattle area marked “blue” on the presenter’s map as n indication that relying on solar could be chancy there.

However, Donnell said, most of the country of Germany, which gets over one quarter of its energy from renewables (though not all  from solar), has approximately the same solar resource base as Alaska. Michigan was roughly equivalent to Spain.

As indicated in Donnell’s article below, tax credits are often a factor in incentivizing companies or individuals to make the initial investment in solar, but since churches pay no taxes, that seemed out of the question. Until, that is, the board of trustees found a tax attorney who offered an alternative.

It is possible for people who are members or supporters of a church or other non-profit to form a Limited Liability Company which could take advantage of the credits. The non-profit organization could then pay back the LLC’s costs, which would be reduced by the amount of the tax credit. When the solar installation was paid for in full, the LLC?would transfer ownership to the church.

Ultimately Plymouth UCC decided not to pursue that, for a number of reasons. “I?kind of wish we had gone through it, just to see how it would work,” Donnell says. “I’m not a tax attorney but it made perfect sense to me when I heard it.”

Plymouth did decide to install solar panels this coming summer to supply about one fourth of the church’s energy consumption, paying for it through the normal church contribution channel. It was helpful to their decision-making that costs have come down, but other factors that figured in were the relatively low maintenance costs, the fact that the source itself is free, and the potential for easy expansion.

“Economics were a part of our decision to go ahead, but another part is that it’s actually a faith statement,” Donnell observes. “As long as you don’t lose a lot of money, it doesn’t have to make dazzling economic sense, because you can use it as a demonstration of stewardship for the planet.”