Houses of Worship significantly expanding their solar commitment
By Gerald W. Bernstein, Interfaith Power & Light
Congregations from all faith traditions in the United States are increasingly turning to solar photovoltaic (PV) for both its environmental and its financial benefits.
In late 2019, Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) completed its second survey of congregations in the U.S. with solar PV systems. Since the 2016 survey, the number of congregations reporting has more than doubled, from 350 to 770 in 47 states plus the District of Columbia. The combined PV capacity of these systems is 45 megawatts, approaching the on-site solar capacity of large multi-location commercial entities such as Costco and Kohl's.
In summary, California is the state with by far the greatest number of congregations (of all major faith traditions) to implement solar PV systems; the PV systems installed by 190 congregations provide 13.5 megawatts (MW) of capacity. Other regions with large numbers of congregations that utilize solar energy include Massa-chusetts (64 congregations), Washington, D.C. (55), Indiana (48), and Maryland and Minnesota (each with 27). Only three states have no congregations utilizing solar power: Alaska, Mississippi, and Wyoming.
While part of the surveyed increase nationwide was a methodological change, we believe the significant increase from the prior survey is primarily due to two major influences. First, the increasing commitment of members of the faith community across the religious and geographic spectrum to address climate change. Numerous Protestant denominations have endorsed responses to climate change at the national level, which is reflected at the local level by the number of churches with solar PV systems; as example, UCC and Unitarian Universalist churches appear frequently in the tally.
Jewish synagogues are well represented, responding to their message of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. Islamic Centers are likewise included, reflecting the Qur'an-derived teaching "Our earth is here for us to use, but not abuse," articulated by Imam Mustafa Umar of the Islamic Institute of Orange County (California).
Many Catholic congregations have embraced solar PV individually and collectively at the diocese level; indeed, the San Diego Diocese has installed more solar capacity (5.3 MW) on its churches and schools than congregations of all faiths combined in any state except the balance of California. According to Shirley Pajanor, chief financial officer at the Diocese: "Our solar generating program [in the Diocese of San Diego] shows the power of doing well by doing good. In his encyclical, Laudato SI, Pope Francis reminds us of our responsibility to care for the Earth as our Common Home. Here in San Diego, in addition to our constant efforts to recycle and transition to sustainably sourced products, we've installed 51 solar power plants at a number of schools, parishes, and our Diocesan Pastoral Center.
"That's good for the environment, but it's also significantly reduced what we pay for electricity," she added.
The second major influence, as Pajanor's above quote suggests, is increasingly favorable economics. The steadily declining cost of installed PV systems has certainly been beneficial. This advantage has been augmented by a proliferation of financing alternatives. Too many congregations still view a PV investment as a fund-raising challenge in which contributions from congregants need to be raised to fund these systems. But the reality is expansion of Property-Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, power purchase agreements (PPA), and leases has allowed congregations to finance PV systems over 10 or 20 years while lowering their combined PV + electric utility monthly payments.
Finance firms have been able to raise capital for these projects from socially responsible investors who are able to utilize the tax benefits that the nonprofit congregations cannot. Our recent experience is these latter sources are of increasing importance as PACE program providers have instituted minimum system size and/or investment thresholds that have reduced congregational eligibility.
This diversity of high-adoption states illustrates that more than mere political inclination is involved in congregational decisions to go solar-a lot of individual support and "hand holding" is needed to overcome the hesitancy of boards and congregations unfamiliar with PV installation requirements and financing. In response to the recognition that almost 85 percent of the state's electricity came from coal, the Southern (now Solar) Indiana Renewable Energy Network was formed in 2008.
This group began an active outreach program to educate the public as to the requirements and benefits of going solar-a theme embraced by the faith community and an effort expanded upon by the Interfaith Power and Light (IPL)-Hoosier affiliate. Similarly, in Minnesota, the IPL affiliate actively participates in congregational meetings to explain the installation process and that utility rebates and outside financing capturing tax credits can drop installation costs by almost half. This balance can be financed over time from utility cost savings and need not be a fundraising challenge.
No matter the motivation, PV-enabled savings allow congregations to focus more resources on their community outreach mission, while demonstrating their values of caring for creation and these communities.
Gerald Bernstein is Manager of Special Projects at Interfaith Power and Light of Oakland, California, an organization that works with people of faith to take action on climate change. He previously managed the California-Hawaii region of the Solar Instructor Training Network (part of the DOE Sunshot Program) and provided research and consulting support to companies in the Transportation and Energy industries.