Sisters go solar: Convent taps into sun’s energy

By Scott Cooper Williams
Press-Gazette Media

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — A religious community on Green Bay’s north side is going green in a big way.

The Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross has launched construction of a 400-panel solar energy installation believed to be one of the largest such systems in Wisconsin.

Located near Nicolet Drive and Church Road, the alternative energy system is designed to generate enough electricity to power about a dozen average-sized homes.

The Sisters of St. Francis plan to harness the power to reduce energy costs in their nearby convent, creating savings projected to surpass $500,000 over the next 20-plus years, Press-Gazette Media reported.

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The solar site is the largest of its kind in the city of Green Bay, the third largest in Brown County and the 18th largest in the state, according to a spokeswoman for the religious order.

Compared with other systems in the Green Bay area, Jesse Michalski, project manager for contractor Eland Electric Corp., said, “By far, this will be the largest one.”

As approved by city officials, the solar installation will include 416 panels — each sized 5½ feet by 3½ feet — assembled on a vacant five-acre parcel just south of the convent.

Tentative plans call for a walking path open to the public where pedestrians can learn about solar energy.

Sister Donna Koch, president of the Franciscan community, said the group is excited to pursue an alternative energy source and also share information about the process.

“We hope the community, school groups and business will find the site educational and will be inspired,” Koch said.

Sisters of St. Francis discussed details of the plan at a news conference on Earth Day.

Green Bay city officials approved a permit for the ground-mounted solar installation earlier this year, calling it the largest such facility in the city.

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City planner Paul Neumeyer said the project is located in an isolated area on the city’s far north side, and yet it has the potential to create a significant savings in energy costs for the sisters.

“It’s a great idea,” he said. “It’s a win-win.”

When it is fully operational, the system will create about 112 kilowatts of electricity, which is equal to the amount of electricity consumed by about a dozen homes.

The construction cost has not been disclosed, but officials said the solar panels would pay for themselves in about 10 years and would save more than $500,000 in utility costs over 20 to 25 years.

The Sisters of St. Francis is a Catholic community of 60 women serving the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay. The convent, built in 2006, is a 51,500-square-foot facility with room for 35 residents.

Michalski said the region’s only larger solar installations are rooftop-mounted systems operated in Bellevue by furniture maker KI and in Howard by Ace Manufacturing Inc.

The religious order’s decision to go solar demonstrates that the alternative energy concept is catching on among businesses, nonprofit groups and others, Michalski said.

“It is gaining traction,” he said.