A mission for communities: solar power in faith-based organizations

By John David Baldwin on March 29, 2017
Pastor Trent from Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC
Pastor Trent from Florida Avenue Baptist Church in Washington, DC

Of all the diverse entities currently embracing solar power, few face more complex challenges than faith-based organizations. There are many factors that make adopting solar difficult for such groups. The most common are a general lack of funds, the complexity of their buildings, consensus (or complex) decision-making within the organizations themselves, and their tax-exempt status. In the face of these challenges, faith-based organizations have a powerful motivator to go solar: a sense of mission about serving as stewards of the environment. This motivator has encouraged these groups work together to make going solar easier.

Brett Benson of Minneapolis-based Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light (MNIPL) explained how being part of an interfaith coalition helps with financing. “MNIPL is part of Just Community Solar, and our role is to do subscriber outreach and education. CEF – Cooperative Energy Futures, which is a co-op – is part of the coalition, and secured the financing for [our projects]. The co-op can get a financing partner that can get the [federal] tax credits.” Nonprofit faith-based organizations need such a partner because their tax-exempt status means they are ineligible for tax credits themselves.

Another advantage of interfaith group collaboration is the opportunity to share best practices and bring together like-minded solar advocates. “I’ve come to believe that every congregation in our region has at least one ‘green sheep’ – one person who deeply understands that their religious values are calling them to address climate change in their faith community as a moral issue,” said Joelle Novey of Washington D.C.-based Interfaith Power & Light (IPL-DMV). Interfaith coalitions bring these people together to share ideas and encouragement, Novey said.

This support is crucial to help communities understand how various federal, state, and local laws can make it easier, or harder to go solar.

“Local legislation is what has enabled this market, and its legal strengthening for the solar carve-out has been absolutely critical to our success,” said Felipe Witchger of the Community Purchasing Alliance. His organization convenes nonprofits to make bulk purchases. “Without that local legislation, we wouldn’t have had the success that we’ve had. The federal investment tax credit has definitely helped as well.”

Local laws are not the only hurdles. “We would like to work more closely with our local utilities, especially because they often struggle to get nonprofits to participate in their available incentive programs,” Novey said. “Meanwhile, we are in touch with the green leaders inside hundreds of congregations who are most passionate about saving energy and would love to enroll their institutions in these programs.”

Aside from these external factors, a significant challenge faith-based organizations may face in adopting solar power is the problems of communication and education. This is true both with the people they serve and within their own organizations.

“We’re looking at this [energy] revolution as a way to deal with racial and economic disparities,” Benson said. “In other words, we’re treating it differently from just another product. So it’s a paradigm shift: we want to educate people, make them aware of what’s going on.”

MNIPL is working on two projects that are due to be completed this spring: Shiloh Temple, in a low-income neighborhood in northern Minneapolis, and the Public Works building in the suburb of Edina, southwest of Minneapolis. The Edina array is 618 kW; Shiloh is approximately 230 kW. Benson is hopeful these projects will make people think more deeply about where their electricity comes from.

However, a significant impediment to energy success for faith-based organizations can be their own culture, which tends to set up internal barriers.

“Since lots of faith communities are actively seeking ways to ‘go green’ and are really interested in getting their energy ‘from heaven’, you might think that the prospect of a company coming and offering them a free system (through a power purchase agreement) at a net savings on their energy bill would be an easy sell.” Novey said. “Most congregations are led by volunteer boards that are fiercely protective of their sanctuaries.”

“The biggest challenge is overcoming the inertia in how these decisions are made by our members,” Witchger said. “A long-term agreement such as a lease to put up solar on a roof is not something they are used to discussing.”

Novey explained that the process of getting these boards comfortable with going solar can take time as they familiarize themselves with the technology and the process for going solar. She also said that solar developers may be unable to wait as the congregation goes through a long deliberative process.

IPL-DMV has developed two resources, available here, as free downloads: a step-by-step guide for area congregations going solar and a booklet that tells the stories a dozen congregations that went solar successfully.

Houses of worship that want to transition to solar can also help their congregants do so directly. After getting solar installed on their synagogue, congregants at Washington D.C.’s Temple Sinai worked together with help from CPN’s own DC Solar United Neighborhoods to launch a solar co-op to help their friends and neighbors go solar as well. The group helped more than 50 homes go solar. Down the road in Richmond, the Hindu Center of Virginia has co-sponsored several area solar co-ops with our sister organization, VA SUN.

“Climate change is one of those issues that really calls our bluff about our common destiny as human beings,” said Novey. “It requires us to come together to respond across boundaries that might have kept us separate before. Over the last year, as ugly religious bigotry has made a comeback in our country, I’ve been grateful for the years of work we’ve done together, as Muslims, Jews, Christians, Baha’is, Unitarian Universalists, ethical humanists, and more, to set aside our differences and protect the climate and planet we share.”