More North Carolina faith communities are going solar

The blessing of the new solar panels atop St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, North Carolina, flowed perfectly from the hour-long Sunday ritual that preceded it.

There was a hymn, “Demos Gracias,” as worshipers from the historically black and now multiracial church marched outside the sanctuary.

There was a scripture: “Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world, and you must shed light among your neighbors, that they may see the good you do.’ »

And there was even holy water, generously sprinkled on the panels as the celebrant prayed and the people abstained: “And in the light of God we see light.

If the ceremony seemed pulled straight from the High Church prayer book, there was a reason, said Vicar Scott Benhase, a longtime priest and bishop who composed most of the solar blessing.

“I think people recognize that being stewards of creation is part of our baptismal identity and our purpose in the world,” he said afterwards. “We can’t do everything, but we can do something. It’s something we can do.

The 116-year-old church is among dozens of North Carolina faith communities that have gone solar in recent years, backed by a 2017 law requiring Duke Energy to offer rebates to nonprofits. The cash back allows even small congregations like Saint-Cyprien to afford the initial investment and avoid financing costs.

“We knew it was going to get us the best return,” said Ajulo Othow, a senior caretaker who grew up in the church and pioneered the solar plan. “The diocese gave us a grant. Combine that with the discount and money from our account, we were able to pay it straight.

Solar industry professional Ajulo Othow, fifth from left, poses outside St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, North Carolina, where she started a 53-panel rooftop project. Now the senior director of the historic church, she has been a member all her life. Credit: Elisabeth Ouzts

The 53-panel array is expected to prevent 524 metric tons of climate pollution and save St. Cyprian more than $100,000 in utility bills. Those math made it an easy sell, Benhase said. “The theology behind it is not complicated,” he said, “nor should it be controversial, for any church or religious group.”

Yet congregations equipped with solar panels represent only a tiny fraction of the state’s roughly 15,000 churches, synagogues and mosques. And with Duke’s cashback program expiring this year, many believe a new policy is needed to help more religious institutions achieve their mission of environmental stewardship.

“There’s tremendous pressure from voters to move forward with solar,” said Scott Alexander, North Carolina regional manager of Eagle Solar and St. Cyprian’s installer Power Light. “Will it be as easy without the discount?” Definitely not.”

“We are supposed to be good stewards”

40 miles south of Oxford in Raleigh, Eagle Solar last year worked with another historically black church: Oak City Baptist Church, established the year the Civil War ended and a longtime fixture in the community.

The 42-kilowatt array has been named by the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association as the 2021 Rooftop Solar Project of the Year. “This installation is an important step in bringing energy justice to low- and moderate-income faith communities. “, said the group in a press release.

The rooftop system atop the Oak City Baptist Church in Raleigh is expected to save the congregation $4,700 a year in utility bills. Credit: Solar Eagle and Light / Courtesy

Explaining the church’s decision to go solar, Patrick McNair, an administrator, echoed Benhase’s “uncomplicated” theology. “As church members, we are meant to be good stewards of the Earth,” he said in an interview.

He also cited another motivation. “We do a lot of outreach, but what more could we do if we eliminated our $1,200 a month electric bill?” The savings would add up over time, McNair said, and “that amount could be spent on feeding children or educating someone or just supporting someone else outside of you – and outside of Duke Energy”.

Like St. Cyprian’s, Oak City Baptist also wants to invest in batteries when costs drop. For the latter, the goal is not just energy independence, but to serve as an emergency center for the neighborhood in the event of a power outage – a fairly frequent occurrence that is likely to worsen due to climate change. .

“We’re this big facility in the middle of the community,” McNair said. “It’s not a question of whether something is going on; it’s a matter of when something happens.

“They need that discount”

According to the Sustainable Energy Association, installers from Triangle Yes Solar and Southern Energy Management have had the most religious customers over the years, with 11 each. The companies say their customers share similar goals with Oak City Baptist and St. Cyprian’s: to reduce their climate footprint and save money.

Yet even large, well-heeled congregations face obstacles as nonprofit entities that pay no taxes. That means they can’t depreciate the value of their solar panel like a business can, and they can’t take advantage of federal tax credits that currently offset 26% of the cost of the panel. “You lose two financial weapons,” said Stew Miller, co-founder and president of Yes Solar.

That’s why the 2017 law-required rebate program is so valuable, Miller and others said. Duke is offering rebates of up to $75,000 for systems up to 100 kilowatts, including approximately 330 panels. The cash back — nearly twice as much per watt as residential customers receive — can translate to up to 40% of the total system cost.

Between 2011 and 2017, about four congregations per year switched to solar power, according to records from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association. Over the four years of the reimbursement program, the average annual number doubled to eight.

“We’ve always had churches and other places of worship interested in solar energy,” said Will Etheridge, manager of roof installer Southern Energy Management, “but the rebate program has helped push more of these people from solar curious to solar adopters.

But for all their appeal, nonprofit rebates have been grossly underutilized, never reaching their cap of 2,450 kilowatts per year. According to Duke, 152 nonprofits have earned cash back over the past four years for installing 5.5 megawatts of solar power — about 18,000 panels — leaving another 4.3 megawatts untapped. About a fifth of the nonprofits that accessed the $4.1 million in rebates were congregations.

Solar installers say they have recently received more requests from communities of faith, perhaps because this is the last year Duke will give rebates. But if history is any indication, there will still be spare capacity after the utility allocates its latest round of grants in July.

“Churches want to do this. They would like the refund – they need that refund,” Miller said. “But it’s still difficult to set up a model for a church and show them that it’s going to pay for itself over a reasonable period of time.”

The Temple Beth Or Synagogue in Raleigh rents its solar panel from Eagle Solar and Light, one of the few installers in the state that offers a rental program. Credit: Solar Eagle and Light / Courtesy

“Perfect places to put solar”

The law allows leftovers to be distributed in 2023, but they must be open to all classes of customers, not just nonprofits. And since there has always been far more demand from residential customers than supply, homeowners are likely to grab the bulk of whatever is distributed next year.

Without the ability to rebate, more nonprofits can take advantage of another aspect of the 2017 law, an alternative to the state’s longstanding ban on third-party sales, in which only regulated utilities — not solar companies — can sell power.

By law, institutions still can’t buy kilowatt-hours from an entity other than Duke, but they can lease the panels to a for-profit solar company that can access tax credits. “The owner of the equipment, in this case Eagle Solar, monetizes the tax benefit,” Alexander said, “and [nonprofits] end up paying a smaller lease amount.

Still, Eagle Solar is among the few companies in the state to offer a rental program, and even Alexander said a policy is needed for religious communities that prefer to buy systems outright.

Federal “Build Back Better” legislation offers a solution. Instead of tax credits that nonprofits cannot use, the government would offer a 30% cash rebate for solar installations. While the legislation languishes in the US Senate, hopes are still high that its clean energy provisions will be signed into law.

“If Build Back Better is successful in some form and direct payment is there, we’ll still have great deals,” Eagle Solar’s Alexander said.

Failing that, Miller wants a state-level solution. “I hope that somehow Duke will scale up and continue the program for nonprofits, or come up with a different program, because it makes sense,” he said. “These beautiful churches and parish halls have plenty of roof space. They are just perfect places to install solar power.

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