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How smaller congregations are challenging the system to ‘go solar’

Smaller, African-American churches are convinced of the moral obligations of switching to renewable energy sources, but the speed with which they take on solar panels has much to do with economics and state regulations.

Solar panels are installed on the roof of Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C., in May 2015. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

GREENSBORO, N.C. (RNS) — Faith Community Church, a small, mostly African-American congregation, has a long history of activism dating back to the civil rights era.

About a decade ago, church members, who worship in a small space within the Beloved Community Center, a larger hub for social justice activism, began to recognize the growing urgency of climate change, as well.

Across town, Greensboro’s Jewish synagogue, Temple Emanuel, installed rooftop solar panels at a cost of $25,000, paid for with donations from members.

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Down the road in Chapel Hill, 50 miles to the east, a United Church of Christ congregation installed a far larger solar array capable of capturing 60 percent of its electrical needs for a whopping $240,000 —  making it one of the largest solar systems on a house of worship in the entire Southeast.

Faith Community’s 50 or so members, mostly working-class, could only dream of that kind of project.

So they came up with a novel solution. They partnered with an environmental advocacy organization, NC Warn, to install solar panels on the community center’s roof for free. In exchange, the church agreed to buy its electricity from NC Warn (it stands for North Carolina Waste Awareness and Reduction Network) at 5 cents per kilowatt-hour, well below the 11 cents per kilowatt-hour the congregation had been paying the state’s monopoly power supplier, Duke Energy.

Kwame Cannon Jr., 11, right, greets worshippers at Faith Community Church in Greensboro, N.C., on May 13, 2018. The church shares space with several nonprofits in an old community center building. Three years ago solar panels were installed on the roof of the building. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

Last week, the state’s Supreme Court ruled the arrangement violated state restrictions on who can sell electricity in the state. In North Carolina, only one company can sell electricity — Duke Energy, the country’s second-largest utility, which provides power to six states.

NC Warn, which spent about $20,000 on Faith Community’s solar panels three years ago, has agreed donate the system to the church so members don’t have to foot the bill, and the church continues to benefit from lower utility bills thanks to the panels, now connected to Duke Energy.

The church, meanwhile, is continuing to fight for deregulation and clean energy for other churches.

“We are deeply committed to doing what we can as a small black church to promote solar energy,” said Nelson Johnson, Faith Community Church’s recently retired pastor. “It’s not just that we pay a little less; it’s that we are doing the responsible thing as it relates to reducing our carbon footprint.”

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Across the country, churches, synagogues and mosques have become increasingly conscious of their moral obligation to care for the environment. Many have quit using Styrofoam cups to serve coffee, planted vegetable gardens and switched out incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents or LEDs.

Now they’re stepping up their environmental activism by investing in renewable energy and particularly solar panels. But the speed with which they take on solar panels has much to do with economics.

There are an estimated 350,000 religious congregations in the U.S., and the median church, with fewer than 75 active participants, struggles to make do. Now an increasing number of those churches want to challenge state restrictions and economic obstacles for what they call climate justice.

“The financing is 100 percent the issue,” said Susannah Tuttle, director of N.C. Interfaith Power and Light, a program of the North Carolina Council of Churches. “They’re moving toward renewable energy as a justice issue and they want to consume clean energy.”

In other states, those without state utility monopolies, customers may purchase electricity generated by solar panels from what’s referred to as a third party — a private company that sells solar. Some companies will install the panels with no down payment or maintenance costs.

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Other localities offer attractive incentives for rooftop solar. Washington, D.C., for example, does so as part of its goal to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 2006 levels by 2032 and 80 percent by 2050.

Religious congregations there also benefit from a local cooperative, the Community Purchasing Alliance, that leverages the buying power of multiple churches, synagogues and mosques to help lower the cost.

The organization allows congregations, charter schools and other nonprofits to negotiate and contract for solar panels in bulk. Instead of churches sifting through reams of competing offers and negotiating on an individual basis with solar providers, the cooperative does it for them.

Recently, the alliance created a program to help churches replace their roofs in addition to getting solar panels. The deal allows congregations that cannot afford to fix old, leaking roofs to roll the roof replacement and the panels into one project.

“We realized if we were going to help churches access the benefits that solar projects have for reducing electricity bills, we had to find a way to bundle the costs of a new roof into the solar project,” said Felipe Witchger, the cooperative’s executive director. “There’s no upfront cost and no ongoing cost. They get a roof project done and they get solar.”

The Rev. Brian Jackson and his congregation are excited for solar panels to be installed at Randall Memorial United Methodist Church in Washington. RNS photo by Keith Lane

Randall Memorial United Methodist Church in the city’s northeast quadrant was one of the first to sign up. The 106-year-old predominantly African-American congregation has needed roof repairs for years.

“People are excited,” said Brian Jackson, the pastor. “This church has been struggling with ‘What are we going to do about a roof?’ for at least 20 years, if not 30. They’re tired of talking about it and seeing nothing happen.”

Jackson, who has led the church for the past seven years, has personal experience with solar, which he had installed on his home several years ago. The savings in his monthly electric bill convinced him the church could benefit, too.

“It’s about being a wise steward,” he said. “It will help them not only with the energy piece, but it will also help them save money on their bills.”

The roof repair and solar installation will take about six months to complete. The alliance has so far signed up six D.C.-area churches, most of them predominantly African-American, and is aiming for 20 by year’s end.

Back in North Carolina, Duke Energy recently began offering a $62 million solar rebate program, intended to add to the state’s 6,000 customers with private solar systems, said spokesman Randy Wheeless.

The benefits to low-income congregations are still unclear.

Earlier this week, a group of faith leaders, activists and businesspeople met in Charlotte to form a network that will push for an ambitious goal for the state: 100 percent renewable, fossil-free fuel.

Rodney Sadler, associate professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte and the co-chair of Faith in Solar, an alliance of 170 state faith leaders, said the theological imperative to care for the creation is well understood. Less so are the structural impediments to getting there.

“There are a number of African-American congregations eager to get involved,” Sadler said. “But there’s greater interest than there is access. We want to make sure there’s greater justice in the process.”