Massachusetts is known for its historic buildings and churches but some of these houses of worship are getting a very modern update as they turn to solar power.
In 2019, at least 64 houses of worship in the commonwealth had solar installations in operation, according to a report from Interfaith Power and Light. The numbers were up 14% from 2017 and only trailed behind California, which had 190 congregations, according to the report.
Following Massachusetts, Washington D.C. had 55 houses of worship with solar installations in operation and, Indiana had 48.
While science and the environment might not feel like a religious issue at first, Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light, or MassIPL, president, Jim Nail said it goes together perfectly.
“If God is creating this and pronouncing it good, people of faith should not go around polluting it,” he said.
It’s also important to help the poor or those who are suffering, he added, which climate change directly affects.
“If through our burning of fossil fuels to heat our buildings and light our buildings we’re contributing to climate change, and that climate change is causing the suffering, then we need to take responsibility for that and do what we can to minimize and hopefully eliminate our contribution to the suffering that causes," he said.
Massachusetts also has good incentives and policies to encourage solar panels, he said. But one of the biggest hurdles is understanding it all.
“Houses of worship generally have volunteer boards, who have limited time and limited expertise. And if something’s too complicated like this, it tends to get kicked down the road,” he said. “So, we’re able to fill that gap.”
Even during the coronavirus pandemic, when much of church leader’s attention is preoccupied and some projects had to be put on hold, Nail was able to schedule time to meet with some of them about this project.
For some communities where solar power might be a new idea, it’s not always a simple path though.
First Parish in Bedford, a Unitarian Universalist church, spent three years fighting to put solar panels on their historic building.
The plan was part of a three phase approach to improve the building’s environmental impact, said Karl Winkler, an engineer and member of First Parish.
Being located in the town’s historic district, the Historic District Commission was apprehensive about the idea.
The church proved its building had been modified and changed in other ways long before the Historic District Commission, Winkler said.
“The roof itself is not historic to the building,” he said.
They also attempted to disprove some of the stereotypes around solar panels.
“I think a lot of people when they think of solar panels it’s like these kind of almost futuristic giant reflective things,” Winkler said.
Instead, Winkler researched the best options that could hide the solar panels from plain sight.
Still, the Historic District Commission said no. But that didn’t stop First Parish.
Instead, with the help from Sherin and Lodgen law firm in Boston, the church took the Historic District Commission to court.
“It’s not a great way to win friends,” said the Rev. John Gibbons, senior minister of First Parish, adding that it was especially hard in such a small town.
The court asked the Historic District Commission to provide reasoning for why the church couldn’t add solar panels, Gibbons said.
“The historic district commission went back and they came up with a dozen reasons why we shouldn’t have solar panels, none of which had been addressed in the public hearings,” he said.
That wasn’t good enough for the courts, and the church was allowed to proceed with the panels.
The ironic thing, Gibbons added, is that a lot of people probably aren’t even aware they’re there.
“I bet there are a lot of people who don’t know that there are solar panels on this building," he said. "They were done in a really very aesthetic way.”
Now Gibbons wants other towns and churches or businesses in historic buildings to see that this is possible — and important.
“It was not blasphemy to put on solar panels but, in fact, it is indicative that we are living institution and that we are trying to live our values,” Gibbons said. “And this is consistent with who we are as a religious community.”
Since then, the church has used their method for installing the solar panels as a recommendation for how they should be added to the local schools, Winkler said. They also hope to be an inspiration to other churches to fight what they believe in.
“It’s a cautionary tale to town government that town government cannot be insular. It cannot resist important cultural changes and environmentalism,” Gibbons said. “We have to find a way for environmentalism to work in New England. We may love our history but we also love our environment.”