Mayra Torres, Leif Kehrwald and Gabe Triplett stand in front of solar arrays atop St. Charles School, purchased through a Pacific Power Blue Sky grant. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)
Mayra Torres, Leif Kehrwald and Gabe Triplett stand in front of solar arrays atop St. Charles School, purchased through a Pacific Power Blue Sky grant. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)
It’s a cloudy January day in Oregon, but rain is nowhere to be seen. Rays of sunshine are creeping through the clouds onto St. Charles School roof in Northeast Portland. Newly installed arrays are expected to offset the parish’s power bill by two-thirds, potentially saving the parish between $800 and $1,000 a month.

Two hundred and thirty five panels make up the four arrays constituting the 81-kilowatt solar system. The system was made possible through a collaborative grant between the parish, Neil Kelly Construction and the nonprofit Verde. The grant, given by Pacific Power’s Blue Sky program, provided $300,000 for the effort.

Though the project was just completed, it’s been a dream of Father Elwin Schwab for a decade.

“I saw all of this flat roof and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got an acre or two of solar panels,’” said the parish priest. “So I started talking about it, and every chance I got, I brought it up.”

Ten years later, Father Schwab says it feels good to see the idea come to fruition. He sees the theological basis for the project.

“We [need to] take care and use God’s creation — use it well and not waste,” said Father Schwab.

“Certainly we have no right to make our planet dirty with carbon dioxide. We have no right to kill our planet,” added the priest. “Our job is to save it. One of the ways we do that is by getting clean energy.”

Caring for God’s creation is not the project’s only benefit. Its cost savings will also be a boon.

“St. Charles is embedded in the neighborhood and very committed to improving the lives of people in our neighborhood, particularly people of color and people of lesser means,” said Leif Kehrwald, pastoral administrator at St. Charles. “When we save money on our power bill , that money can be immediately redirected toward our efforts to work with people in the neighborhood.”

Carolina Iraheta Gonzalez, community energy advocate for Verde, says the organization’s involvement with the St. Charles solar panals made a lot of sense.

“St Charles is a cornerstone of the community here in the Cully neighborhood and provides a lot of social services,” said Gonzalez, noting the parish and Verde’s collaboration on renter protections and organizing.

Verde advocates for clean energy among low-income communities in Portland. The thought behind the advocacy is to mitigate the effects of climate change on those likely to bear the biggest burden of a shifting climate — low-income people. The organization looks for clean energy projects where low-income people and people of color will be the main beneficiaries.

The St. Charles project “helps the [parish] participate in the clean energy economy and supports our community because [the parish] is able to increase their operations budget,” said Gonzalez.

“It’s not just good for the church within the community, it’s good for the church as a whole,” added Gabe Triplett, pastoral associate and youth group coordinator at the parish. The project shows the youth in the parish and community that the Catholic Church can be an avenue of social change.

“If we really live our faith, which is doing things like putting solar panels on our churches, then we take a giant step forward in reclaiming some of that ground that we’ve lost in showing that our faith is compatible with the values that young adults have,” said Triplett, referring to moral ground lost through the abuse crisis plaguing the church.