Indiana Convent Adds Solar Panels

Posted: Updated:
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.
  • Perspectives

    • Greg Ballard is the former mayor of Indianapolis and a co-founder and current board member of Indy Women in Tech.

      Shining a Spotlight on Women in Tech

      I still get a thrill driving through the gates of our legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I will be lucky enough to do so for an entire week soon. This week, the best women golfers in the world will once again display their talents at Brickyard Crossing Golf Course in the Indy Women in Tech Championship. However, the tournament is much more than an athletic competition. It is an opportunity to support a solution to a critical economic and workforce development issue.

    More

Events



  • Most Popular Stories

    • U.S. Steel 'Renaissance' Spurs $750M Gary Works Investment

      Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp. (NYSE: X) has announced a $750 million investment in its Gary Works operations. The company says the funds are part of a $2 billion asset revitalization effort that will take place over the next five years. Last year, U.S. Steel detailed plans that involved pumping $35 million into Gary Works, which followed the $23 million first phase of its Hot Strip Mill Restoration Plan. The latest investment, the Indiana Economic Development Corp. says...

    • Fort Wayne Radio Icon Butcher Passes Away

      A fixture in the Fort Wayne radio scene has passed away. Charly Butcher spent more than 30 years in Fort Wayne radio with a successful morning show on WMEE-FM and, most recently, as host of "Fort Wayne's Morning News" on WOWO radio. Butcher was 61. Butcher was part of WMEE's popular "Those Two Guys In The Morning" show with Tony Richards in the 1980s. He joined WOWO in the mid-2000s as host of "Fort Wayne's Morning News With Charly Butcher."

    • (Rendering of phase two of the Riverfront Fort Wayne project provided by the city of Fort Wayne.)

      Fort Wayne Riverfront Contract Pulled

      A proposed $2.5 million contract for the design work for the next two phases of the Riverfront Fort Wayne project has been pulled. Our partners at WPTA-TV report the Fort Wayne City Council withdrew the contract, which was set to go to Philadelphia-based DAVID RUBIN Land Collective.

    • Hogsett Unveils 'Create Indy'

      Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett has launched a comprehensive effort aimed at making Indianapolis an arts and culture hub. Create Indy combines the city's music and film strategies with new grants to support design, media and food projects as well as strategic planning efforts. One of the new grants will target emerging cultural economies" that often do not quality for traditional funding sources. Individuals and organizations can apply for up to $10,000 each.

    • The building will be converted to the Aloft Indianapolis Downtown

      Historic Downtown Indy Building to Become Hotel

      A hotel owner and operator with offices in Columbus and New York has acquired a historic building in downtown Indianapolis. Everwood Hospitality Partners says it has invested $5 million to acquire the former Stockyards Bank Building and plans to invest an additional $13 million to transform the building into a 128-room hotel. The 12-story building, which was built in 1898, will become the Aloft Indianapolis Downtown. Renovation work is expected to begin in the...