Incentives, Jewish values push Temple Emanu-El to go solar

(L-R) Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, Solar Celebration Co-Chair Scott Arden, Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon, Temple Emanu-El President John Judin and Solar Project Coordinator Steve Tofel at Temple Emanu-El’s Earth Day Solar Celebration April 22.

When Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild flipped the switch on Temple Emanu-El’s solar energy array during its Earth Day celebration on April 22, it was the culmination of a long process. “It started last summer,” said Cohon, spurred by “a lot more incentives from the government and the power company to go green.”

“Our congregants were very enthusiastic about doing this because of the moral and Jewish implications,” he said, citing the Jewish value of bal tashchit (do not destroy). “It’s our responsibility as stewards of the Earth.”

There have been a few other solar energy pilot projects at Reform synagogues across the country that didn’t work out, said Cohon. He was primed to take the plunge, having had personal experience with his own home, which he converted to solar power in September 2011. “My parents solar heated their pool in the 1980s,” said Cohon. But it wasn’t yet “the right time for Temple.”

Until recently there weren’t enough incentives for nonprofits to go green. “Cost effectiveness hasn’t been as effective as you would think,” said Cohon. “It’s a little hard to understand how this could work for a building constructed in 1948,” yet it does.

Temple Emanu-El will not be a totally green structure, he said, “but we’re lowering our carbon footprint, creating a source for renewable energy that doesn’t damage the environment, the ozone layer or contribute to global warming.”

“Basically, you go to a solar contractor and pay the same amount for electricity” as you would to the electric company for air conditioning, lighting and other electricity needs, explained Cohon. The solar company installed the photovoltaic panels in the parking lot, which convert light into electricity at the atomic level. An added benefit is that they provide covered parking spaces.

The solar array is “an investment in the future. The panels will last around 40 years,” said Cohon. “It will take around 13 years to pay them off, with no electric bill.” Plus, the cost is locked in, negating a possible rise in the cost of electricity if Temple hadn’t switched to solar.

Is it a coincidence that it takes 13 years to amortize Temple Emanu-El’s new solar project? “By the time the kids I’m naming today become Bar or Bat Mitzvahs,” noted the rabbi, “we’ll be looking at a future with a significantly improved financial situation.”

“You can’t really do any better than this,” said Cohon.