It was May 2017 and Beth Shalom board member Bruce Rollman had just been presented with a rundown of the synagogue’s expenses. The congregation’s building, a large five-story structure sitting on the corner of Beacon Street and Shady Avenue, had once again used an enormous amount of electricity, leading to an energy bill upwards of $70,000.
“I was just thinking after looking at the budget numbers, what could we do, what could Beth Shalom do, to cut operating expenses without cutting services?” he recalled. “And one thought that hit me was, how could we use the roof?” Specifically, could the roof hold solar panels?
A year later, Beth Shalom is on its way to breaking ground on a $250,000 solar installation project, which could save the congregation at least 20 percent on electricity costs.
The interest in installing solar panels is not unique to Beth Shalom, though: Other Jewish institutions and individuals in Pittsburgh are increasingly looking towards solar energy as not only a cost-saving measure, but a way to cut emissions and to educate children about the implications of alternative energy.
In addition to the cost-saving benefits, installing solar panels at Beth Shalom could provide a myriad of other rewards to the congregation and the community at large.
To start, a reduction of 85 tons of carbon dioxide a year would support the city’s Climate Action Plan 3.0, a series of goals announced in May 2017 by Mayor William Peduto.
The plan calls for the city to cut energy and water use in half citywide by 2030.
“It would be a visible symbol of Beth Shalom’s commitment to the environment and it represents Jewish values, like tikkun olam and environmental stewardship,” said Rollman.
Daniel Gilman, Peduto’s chief of staff, who is advising Beth Shalom on its solar initiative, said the project is a “powerful opportunity” to show the community that even an old building can adapt to changing times.
“We’ve had some really successful solar projects, both residential as well as newer construction,” Gilman noted. “But to do it on a building the age of Beth Shalom, owned by a non-profit, a religious institution, that is more groundbreaking.
“And I think it can be a model that’s applicable not just in the East End but regionally,” he added.
“The creation story in [Genesis] teaches us to ‘till and to tend,’ that is, to be responsible for what God has given us; by building a solar roof, we will put that imperative into action,” Adelson wrote in an email.
Beth Shalom leaders have already laid out a full timeline for the project, which could see solar panels on the roof by summer 2019 if all steps are successful.
This month, the congregation will establish a “solar committee” to assist with education, fundraising and grant writing, as well as kick off an adult education program — taking place on July 28 and 29 at Beth Shalom — in conjunction with Solar United Neighbors and Prepared PGH, a city government climate initiative. The program will seek to convince local homeowners and small businesses to join the Allegheny County solar co-op.
About a dozen homeowners have already signed on to be a part of the local co-op, according to Henry McKay, program director of Solar United Neighbors of Pennsylvania, a non-profit that organizes the co-ops.
“[Beth Shalom is] looking for this broad engagement around solar, not just the institution itself going solar,” McKay said, adding that in many cases, organizations with large buildings such as Beth Shalom opt to negotiate with solar installers on their own instead of with a co-op.
The most difficult — and uncertain — portion of the project, though, will most likely come in August, when the fundraising campaign, which will look to raise $125,000, will commence.
Assuming the congregation can raise sufficient funds to get the project off the ground, state aid will be crucial in further reducing the overall cost of the endeavor, said Rollman.
A new grant program established by Gov. Tom Wolf in November 2017, under the state’s Solar Energy Program, offers one-to-one matching funds for solar installation, which could help to alleviate the fundraising burden for the congregation.
Receiving grant money from the state is not a foregone conclusion, though. The application, due in mid-November, could be rejected or sent back to the congregation for revision and resubmission.
‘Nothing is off the table’
Costs and structural barriers still pose obstacles to many Jewish institutions in the area in installing solar panels.
Nearly every synagogue and Jewish school in Pittsburgh that responded to a request for comment said it either had considered solar panels and concluded that installing them was not practical financially or had simply not looked into the prospect at all.
“I mean, it has come up,” said Leslie Hoffman, executive director of Temple Emanuel of South Hills. “We just haven’t taken the next steps to really pursue it.”
Jerry Katz, building manager at Temple Sinai, said solar panels would be one of many ideas — including LED bulbs — that the congregation would look at as it moves forward with a review of its expenses.
“As part of the overall package, I think we will look at solar and some other things that maybe would be more sustainable,” he said. “But no, we haven’t done anything actively.”
Because much of the roof is old, though, he questioned whether it could support solar panels.
“The rates that were quoted were just not within our budget to install an array of that size,” said Jennifer Bails, director of marketing and communications at CDS. “So we started to reevaluate what our goals would be for the project in terms of the education value and what were other creative opportunities for installing solar.”
The school later looked at a smaller-scale solar project — either on a bike rack station or in the parking lot — but again, the numbers simply didn’t add up.
“Nothing is off the table, but we haven’t figured out the funding to make any of it a reality to date,” Bails said.
Bails added that CDS would appreciate the opportunity to partner with Beth Shalom, potentially giving students the ability to learn first-hand the impact of solar panels on the local community and the world. The school has already moved forward with solar education, even without the potential for hands-on exposure. Last year, Kyle Ison, the school’s middle school science teacher, taught an elective last year on solar power, according to Bails.
And as CDS and Beth Shalom look to integrate solar energy into their curriculum, they may have a guiding light: Shady Side Academy will open a new $11 million science building replete with solar panels this fall, which could serve as a model for local schools, noted Rollman.
Flipping the neighborhood
While individual homeowners face similar barriers as larger institutions to going solar, some in the East End have already done so.
The Friedlanders, who live in Squirrel Hill, have reaped the benefits of solar panels for multiple months.
“It’s cut our electric bill in half,” said Eric Friedlander.
The upfront costs of solar panels, though, could be prohibitive for many families.
According to Friedlander, the purchase and installation of panels was as expensive as a “very nice car” and it will most likely take decades before the costs are recouped.
Friedlander said the environmental benefits, not the potential cost savings, ultimately swayed him and his wife, Mary Pat, to go through with the project.
“I think [of] the long-term economic advantage, especially as electricity prices go up, and trying to be more environmentally friendly so we’re not using power from coal and whatever else Duquesne [Light] is using,” Friedlander noted. “So hopefully, the long-term effect is beneficial.”
Friedlander said the panels also served an educational purpose for his two kids, who have gained a more heightened sense of awareness around energy waste.
Rollman argued that Beth Shalom’s project, if successful, could spur local homeowners and businesses to consider solar power, due to the centralized location of the building and its iconic place in the Jewish community.
“It would be in a really highly visible area that could potentially help flip the rest of the neighborhood,” Rollman said.
And should the Allegheny County solar co-op convince dozens more homeowners to join — as McKay hopes — solar panels could soon become a regular sight on the streets of Pittsburgh. PJC
Jonah Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.