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

    • Tax Planning: Now’s the Time to Tackle It!

      Year-end is still months away, but smart investors have already begun their tax planning. Spending time analyzing your capital-gain situation could benefit you come next April 15th, no matter what investment vehicles you use - individual securities, mutual funds, exchange traded funds, or others. Here's how…

    More

Events



  • Most Popular Stories

    • Indy Hotels Among Top in Midwest

      Three Indianapolis hotels are among Condé Nast Traveler's Top 25 Hotels in the Midwest. The rankings include two hotels that have made the list three years in a row and one making its debut. The JW Marriott Indianapolis ranks third on this year's list, followed by The Conrad, which is eighth and Ironworks Hotels appearing on the list for the first time at number 17. You can see the full rankings by...

    • Ambrose Amps up Ambition For Old GM Stamping Site

      An Indianapolis-based developer has greatly expanded its original investment plans for the city's former GM Stamping Plant site. Ambrose Property Group's vision now includes projects totaling nearly $1.4 billion, more than doubling the $550 million scope detailed last year. During a community event Friday, the company and Mayor Joe Hogsett announced the name of the more than 100-acre, downtown district: Waterside. Plans now call for...

    • Indy Airport Scores Top Honor Again

      Indianapolis International Airport has again been named Best Airport in the United States by a global leisure publication. The Condé Nast Traveler recognition is the fifth straight for IND. The Best Airport designation is part of Traveler's annual Readers Choice Awards, which is built on feedback from more than 100,000 comments and millions of ratings. In addition to airports, favorites were tallied for hotels, resorts and destinations.

    • Daniels Envisions Purdue, Region as 'Cooler Place'

      Purdue University President Mitch Daniels says a more than $1 billion live, work, play development on the West Lafayette campus will be a magnet for attracting and keeping top talent in the region. The Discovery Park District is part of a 30-year vision to transform the west side of the Purdue campus and create a "preeminent environment" for educational, economic, cultural and community activities in the region.

    • NTN Driveshaft Proposing $90M Expansion

      NTN Driveshaft Inc. in Columbus is planning a $90 million expansion. In a tax abatement request with the Bartholomew County city, the automotive component supplier said the investment will lead to 74 new jobs and help retain a current full-time workforce of nearly 1,600. NTN Driveshaft is one of the largest employers in Columbus and last year, it opened a more than $140 million facility in Anderson. It launched operations in Bartholomew County in 1989 and says...