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

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Trent explained that federal subsidies and local incentives (a cash grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that covered 30 percent of the system’s cost, and D.C.’s solar-renewable-energy credit program, which allows the church to sell rights to the energy it produces on the open market) made the transition feasible. “As part of the stimulus package, the president made a commitment to renewable energy, and that, for us, made it affordable,” Trent said.

He quickly raised the $60,000 needed to install the panels from a group of congregants who own and operate the system under a specially created LLC (limited liability company). They recouped $18,000 from a federal grant that rewards investments in renewable technology.

Additionally, the church receives a monthly $280 check from the sale of solar-renewable-energy certificates — one for every 1,000 kilowatts of power produced — to utility companies and power plants, which, in D.C. and 42 states, are required to purchase a certain amount of surplus clean energy from consumers. The church is also on the waiting list for a rebate program through the District Department of the Environment, which will provide more financial incentives to go solar.

“Between the grant paying for 30 percent of the costs of the system, plus the sale of our solar credits, plus the D.C. incentive, and the savings on electricity, we’re looking at a three-year payback [on the initial investment],” said Trent.

Installing the glassy blue solar panels now lining the Florida Avenue Baptist Church roof took less than three weeks. With a U.S. Department of Labor grant, Volt Energy trained and hired local workers for the construction. “We’re training 80 people over the next two years to do solar installation,” Campbell said. “The job-training grant allows us to reach people who haven’t had exposure to solar projects, and certify them to work in this industry.”

Overall, the United States has adopted solar energy at a snail’s pace; the country currently uses it for just .01 percent of its electrical needs. But despite this small base, the solar industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the American economy. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, U.S. production and installation of solar-power fixtures rose in 2010 to $6 billion, up from $3.8 billion in 2009. And in the first quarter of 2011 alone, solar energy increased by 66 percent.

This Little Light of Mine … Is Solar

Alease Smith-Pinkett, 64, admits that she was surprised when her pastor first approached parishioners about the idea. “Of course I’d heard about solar panels, but I never thought I would hear about them in church, quite frankly,” she told The Root. “It’s sparked a lot of excitement in the congregation. Now people at church are switching off lights, checking the thermostat and meeting about things we can do to be more energy efficient at home. It’s almost a contest now, trying to have the lowest kilowatts on our energy bills!”