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."
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!"
The church is also working with Volt Energy engineers to develop an after-school-program curriculum on renewable energy for middle school students. "We want this to be their introduction to what the possibilities are," Trent said. "When you ask a kid what they want to be when they grow up, they respond with what they see: a football player, a basketball player. But there's a whole industry out there that, unless they see it, they don't know. This makes it real to them."
Economic, environmental and educational benefits aside, Trent said that going green is chiefly a spiritual thing. "It comes out of stewardship, which is managing the gifts God gives you," he said. "It's part of our Christian responsibility to take care of this incredible gift [of the Earth] that was given to us. We haven't done such a good job. So we learn."
The Future Is Now
The concept of solar power may sound futuristic to some, but Campbell says that depends on where you live. "New Jersey, for example, is the second-fastest-growing state for solar after California," he said, "and it's not because New Jersey's a sunny state.
"In places with a high adoption of solar, like the West Coast, mid-Atlantic and Northeast," he continues, "the African-American community is very familiar with solar because they see it everywhere. Other parts of the country, like the South, are catching up."
In the faith community in particular, Trent said, the interest is growing. "They're calling me a solar evangelist," he said, adding that more than 30 other pastors have visited Florida Avenue Baptist Church to learn more. "At the end of the year, [the federal grant program] runs out, and we have no hopes that it will be renewed under the current Congress. So I tell them to get involved in this because the opportunity is now."
Most of all, Trent wants people to understand the viability of going solar — a transition that his flock was able to make smoothly. "Look, we're a midsize church," he said. "I tell them that they don't have to be a mega-church with thousands of members. If we can do this, you all can do it. Anybody can do it."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.