Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Big Solar Project by Downtown Church

First Unitarian Society adding 95 panels to church, adjacent apartment building.

By - Jan 7th, 2020 12:55 pm
First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee Church. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee Church. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A 129-year-old, English-Gothic-style church is about to receive a modern amenity.

The First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee is proposing to add 65 solar panels to the roof of its Ferry & Clas designed church at 1342 N. Astor St.

The panels, coupled with 30 to be installed on the roof of an adjacent church-owned apartment building, would generate approximately $6,300 worth of electricity annually said congregation member Mark Mueller in an interview with Urban Milwaukee.

“For us this is a religious act,” said congregation member Bruce Wiggins. Wiggins noted that the panels, designed to address climate change, would honor the Unitarian Universalist belief in interdependence.

The Historic Preservation Commission unanimously granted approval Monday afternoon for the congregation to add the panels to the south roof of the historic church.

All but 17 of the 65 panels being added to the church will be hidden from the street. “Staff does not feel the visual impact from that location is sufficient enough to warrant a reduction in the number of panels,” said commission staff member Tim Askin.

The commission does not have design oversight of the adjacent three-story apartment building at 1332-1338 N. Astor St. But if it did, Askin would recommend the commissioners approve the plan. Calling it a “fine example,” Askin said the rooftop panels would be completely hidden from street level.

The panels would augment two smaller arrays already installed on the southeast corner of the church complex. Installed in 2010, a We Energies report estimates that those panels save the congregation $1,400 in energy costs annually.

The church’s plan relies on a complex legal structure to provide financing. Mueller will serve as a tax sponsor, using a for-profit limited liability company to rent the roof space and own 50 percent of the panels. That will allow the church to leverage federal tax credits for solar installations.

Legacy Solar Co-op of Madison will also sell bonds to support the project. Both Mueller and Legacy’s bondholders will be paid back from the energy savings. “We hope to get some people in the church to buy out the bondholders after six years,” said Mueller. The bonds are scheduled to be paid off in 12 years.

The project also relies on grants from RENEW Wisconsin and Focus on Energy.

Arch Electric will install the panels.

Mueller encouraged other non-profit entities interested in learning about how to finance solar panels to contact him at

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Related Legislation: File 191345

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