How This Black Church Went Green

A Washington, D.C., congregation is leaning on another higher power: solar.

From left: Unidentified man, the EPA's Lisa Jackson, the Rev. Earl Trent Jr.and owners of Volt Energy
From left: Unidentified man, the EPA's Lisa Jackson, the Rev. Earl Trent Jr.and owners of Volt Energy

Florida Avenue Baptist Church, a historic black institution in Washington, D.C.’s LeDroit Park neighborhood, seems ordinary at first glance. But walking past the curly CFL light bulbs dotting its hallways, and a flat-screen monitor reporting the congregation’s carbon footprint in real time, you suspect that something’s a little different. That difference is on the roof.

When the 500-member congregation had 44 solar panels installed in March 2011, it became the first African-American church in the District to be powered by solar energy.

“I tend to look toward the future, and we’ve always been pretty progressive here,” the Rev. Earl Trent Jr. told The Root of the church’s environmentally friendly decision, which he considers a natural extension of other long-standing projects, such as its health-and-wellness ministry, and demonstrations for fair wages and workers’ rights.

So far the church’s $60,000 investment in renewable power generation has reduced its $3,000 monthly electric bill by 15 percent, or $450, a benchmark that Trent said is just the first step: “It’s raised our awareness, so now we’re looking into other ways to be even more energy efficient.

“We’re looking into window replacement, changing our lighting and how we use electricity — what stays on, and what can be turned off,” he continued. “By making those adjustments, we hope that solar will produce about 25 percent of our electricity. Like most churches, we have an older building with expensive lighting and heating. When we were approached about going solar, it just made sense to go ahead and check this out.”

The Business of Green

The idea came to Trent through Gilbert Campbell III, co-owner of Volt Energy, a renewable-energy firm that specializes in solar construction and development projects, primarily for university and corporate buildings. Campbell, 31, and his business partner, Simon Antonio Francis, 32, both Howard University graduates, launched their company 2 1/2 years ago after mentors encouraged them to break into the field. Before starting their business, Campbell, who majored in finance, worked in management consulting, and Francis, a biology major, worked in biotech sales.

“Like President Obama says, renewable energy is the direction in which the world is moving,” Campbell explained about his business, which he said was working with 20 other churches around the country and had recently completed solar-energy projects with Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University. “The project with Florida Avenue Baptist was a good partnership because it’s given us the ability to show the members, and other churches, that it’s not a foreign concept but something they can see and touch.”