Mundelein first seminary to have solar array on campus

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Arial view of a new solar array in the shape of a cross on the campus of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary photo

If you wanted to start with an awful pun, you could say the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary has seen the light when it comes to solar power.

The university recently flipped the switch on a cross-shaped array of solar panels that are expected to provide 20 to 25 percent of the power the campus consumes over their 35-year lifespan, saving about $1 million in utility bills over that time and producing as much energy each year as about 215 tons of coal.

“As we approach the centennial of Mundelein Seminary, it is exciting to complete a project that will both help the institution financially and provide sustainable energy for years to come,” said Father John Kartje, Mundelein’s rector/president. “This solar facility will also serve as a physical reminder of our biblical responsibility to be good stewards of the earth and its resources.”

Mundelein is the first seminary in the country to have a solar array on campus, according to school officials.

The project was the brainchild of Mundelein supporter David Brochu, CEO of PureGen Energy, LLC. Kartje said Brochu approached him with the idea about a year ago.

“I would have thought we wouldn’t get enough sunshine to make it worthwhile,” Kartje said.

That’s a common misconception, Brochu said. While both greater amounts of sunshine and higher energy costs can make it more economically feasible to install solar farms in, say, southern California, most of the continental United States gets enough sun to make such projects worthwhile, especially if there are government incentives that can be applied.

Brochu’s company did most of the design work on a pro bono basis, and everyone who worked on the project kept their prices as low as they could, Brochu said. The final cost came in at about $800,000. That will be recouped by investors who formed a separate company, USML Laudato Si’ Solar LLC, that owns the array and will sell power back to the seminary. In six years, once they are expected to have broken even, the array will revert to the university’s ownership.

The company is named for Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” which focuses on the need to care for creation.

Kartje said the plan never would have gotten off the ground without Brochu’s input.

“It’s a great example to show how we can all work together collaboratively,” he said. “We need to always be open to those partnerships and the expertise people can bring. It’s a real and viable way for people to get involved in the church.”

Brochu acknowledged that it was his idea to lay the solar panels out in the form of a cross, making a shape that’s visible from 20,000 feet high. When he asked contractors to bid on the project with both the cost of making a rectangle and the cost of making a cross, all of them said they would build the cross at no additional cost.

Even with the open space to create a large installation at Mundelein and Brochu providing his expertise for free, the project would have been more difficult to pull off without the help of an Illinois renewable energy incentive program that has since expired.

David Singler, the energy and sustainability associate who works with parishes, elementary schools and other archdiocesan institutions, is hoping such incentive programs will be renewed. That would make it more feasible for parishes and schools to install smaller solar arrays, generally on their roofs.

“There are a number of reasons why we want to do it,” Singler said. “It’s trying to live up to the ideals of Laudato Si’ and reduce our carbon footprint. The more we generate our own energy, the less fossil fuel we use. And it does save money, although that’s totally variable.”

Other small solar installations in the archdiocese include one on a Catholic Cemeteries building and one on Old St. Mary’s School, 1471 S. Michigan Ave.

There are challenges, Singler said, including that both the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act and the Solar Energy for All program, which provides incentives for solar energy in lower income or environmentally challenged areas, offer renewable energy credits for 15 years. That means, if the solar array is put on a roof, the roof has to have an expected life of at least that long.

“We do have a lot of buildings with deferred maintenance,” he said.

That deferred maintenance also means parish leaders might prioritize other projects over adding solar arrays.

“Solar is a great thing, but there’s lower hanging fruit too, like energy efficiency,” he said.


  • laudato si
  • mundelein seminary

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