Indiana Convent Adds Solar Panels

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Two new solar panels are added to the Oldenburg convent's farm garage. Photo by Lohrum Elecrical Two new solar panels are added to the Oldenburg convent's farm garage. Photo by Lohrum Elecrical

A group of nuns in southeastern Indiana has been minding their carbon footprint since 1851, although their environmental stewardship didn’t go by that phrase when their convent was founded. Now the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg find that technology is allowing them to be more energy efficient as they continue to pursue goals of care and service.

The order is celebrating its 165th anniversary this year, and for much of that time a convent farm provided the sisters and their affiliated school with food. The sisters’ efforts to make the farm continually viable in some way haven’t always been easy. In fact, Michaela Farm, as it’s called, shut down entirely for a few years in the mid-1980s. But because working with nature in God’s creation is part of the order’s calling, the farm was revived. It now takes advantage of solar technology to decrease its environmental impact.

“When the sisters brought back the farm in 1991, they wanted it to be organic,” explains Michaela Farm manager Chris Merkel. “They understood back then that you are what you eat. They tried to use as little fossil fuel as possible, but growing the cattle herd and the gardens meant the farm needed gas-powered engines and diesel-powered equipment to be more efficient.”

Today Michaela Farm is no longer organic but classified as “natural” and helps to feed the community. It produces grass-fed beef, eggs, honey and a wide array of produce for sale, and makes its products available to the local hospital. To make up for the increased use of fossil fuels, the nuns investigated alternative energy options. A fundraiser in 2009 netted enough money to purchase five solar panels. While that might not seem like a lot, Merkel says it made a significant impact at the farm.

“With those five panels, we could see a definite decrease in our electric bill, year-round. We later added another office onto that system, which added to our consumption, so this year we decided to see if adding two more panels would help reduce our use again.”

Lorhum Electrical of Greensburg stepped in to add the new panels to the small existing array. Merkel says he’d like to see an even greater reduction in electrical use, but adding to the overall savings. “Some days we’re pulling more off the grid, other days we’re adding back.”

The seven panels are mounted on the roof of a house at Michaela Farm and provide electricity to not only the residential portion, but two offices, the lights of the farm’s greenhouse, a hot water circulating pump as well as a garage used by the farm.  While the farm operation continues to grow every year, Merkel is exercising financial caution in the months ahead. He knows a larger solar array that would support the farm’s barn would be even more expensive and says he’s learned that waiting will sometimes yield a better return on investment as technology catches up with need.

Still, big ideas bloom. Merkel would like to realize energy efficient support for a pressurized system to move water to the convent’s cattle herd, but is willing to wait and watch for the best opportunities. After all, he’s been working at the convent for 27 years and seems to have developed an admirable sense of patience, and humor.

“It’s all been a learning experience for me, but also a place I can utilize all the knowledge I’ve gained over the course of my life. And get taught in ways I never expected,” he laughs. 

Michaela Farm manager Chris Merkel explains why the convent's barn consumes so much of the farm's energy.
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