by Sarah Shemkus
Houses of worship in Massachusetts are increasing their adoption of solar power, a trend that advocates say can both influence community attitudes toward renewable electricity and help more low-income households take advantage of the benefits of clean energy.
At least 64 houses of worship in Massachusetts had solar installations in operation last year, a 14% increase from 2017 and second only to California, according to a report from Interfaith Power and Light, a national campaign to mobilize religious response to climate change. Increasing urgency about climate change, falling prices for solar panels, development of more versatile financing options, and growing awareness of renewable energy are coming together to drive yet further growth in the sector.
“There is a growing interest in faith communities in going solar,” said Madeleine Barr, vice president of outreach and sales at Resonant Energy, a Boston-based solar developer focused on serving nonprofit organizations, houses of worship, and low-income communities. “It’s a step toward their values and it’s a step toward addressing the climate crisis.”
For many in faith communities, the connection between religious practice and solar energy is obvious. The imperative to care for the suffering is a tenet in every major religion, said James Nail, president of the Massachusetts chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, and climate change is certain to cause suffering. Helping slow down the effects of climate change is therefore a moral necessity. Furthermore, he said, faith requires believers to respect and tend to the planet.
“If God created this thing and wants it to be good, we shouldn’t go around polluting it and destroying it,” Nail said. “It’s pretty simple.”
Nail’s organization launched its solar campaign in 2012, helping houses of worship with the logistics of installing panels: how to determine if they have a good site, find reputable contractors, take advantage of incentive programs, and, ultimately, pay for it all. Early on, there were faith communities that were interested in solar, but not ready to commit, for a variety of reasons, Nail said.
After the first few went ahead with solar installations, however, others started to see the possibilities, and adoption picked up. So far, the group has helped shepherd more than 50 solar systems through the process, Nail said.
“And very commonly a number of people in the congregation decide to put solar on their houses as well,” he added.
The moral connection between religious practice and climate action that Nail noted might mean that faith communities have a special role to play in encouraging adoption of solar power, said those involved. While a business or politician might be perceived as having ulterior motives for promoting renewable energy, a religious group is more likely to be seen as driven by morality. And these institutions generally have an established relationship of trust with congregants, making members more receptive to a message about the benefits — both practical and spiritual — of solar.
“We do have some privileged space in the public square around conversations of morality and community and values that maybe your average science or university or company doesn’t have,” said Rev. Mariama White-Hammond, pastor of New Roots AME Church in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, and an outspoken environmental justice advocate.
White-Hammond’s previous church, Bethel AME in Dorchester, installed solar panels in 2017, as part of a project with two other area churches. The presence of solar on churches in a community has an important effect, she said. On a practical level, it saves money, allowing the congregation to put money to use in other ways. Less tangibly, the solar panels let members and neighbors begin to think differently about environmental action, and to see that it is something that could be part of their lives and their homes as well, White-Hammond said.
In many cases, faith communities also use their own solar projects to share the benefits of clean power, Barr said. Some houses of worship sell electricity to members, for example, and others share it with area organizations, like a food pantry, she said.
In the suburban town of Lexington, Temple Emunah is developing a project to install solar panels on canopies over the parking lot. The congregation had been investigating possibilities for going solar for some 10 years before this plan emerged, said Susan Rubenstein, a temple member involved in developing the solar plan. The original idea was to install rooftop solar, but the siting was tricky and the cost was prohibitive; estimates ran from $1 million to $2 million.
Finally, available solar incentives, the falling cost of panels, and more diverse financing options aligned to create the right environment for moving forward. Working with Resonant Energy, the temple settled on a plan to build a 336-kilowatt system on canopies shading its parking lot. The system will be owned by a solar investment firm that will lease the parking lot from the temple. The temple will buy its energy from the installation and receive a monthly lease payment for the use of the parking lot.
But the project won’t only be providing clean electricity to the temple: The remaining power generated will be made available, at a discounted rate, to low-income families, an arrangement made possible by provisions in the state solar incentive program that offer extra money to projects serving low-income households.
“The goal of any religious institution is to be a change agent for good in the world,” said Alan Sherman, another temple member involved in the project. “And it’s literally costing us nothing.”
Some houses of worship that can’t install their own solar are still promoting clean energy within their congregations. In Reading, the Unitarian Universalist Church’s Green Sanctuary group is campaigning to encourage congregants and others in the community to install solar panels through a rebate program offered by the town’s municipal power company.
As in many sectors, solar has been slowed by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the intersections between faith and clean energy are so strong, said supporters, that the trend is likely to continue well into the future.
“It’s different than how it was even five years ago,” Barr said. “It’s not really acceptable anymore to say that someone else will deal with it. It is very real and there are very real steps that we as communities can do together.”