Houses of Worship Continue Expansion of Solar

Feb 7, 2022 | Blog

By Gerald Bernstein, IPL Special Projects Manager

At the end of January 2022, IPL released its third tally of solar Photovoltaic (PV) systems among houses of worship in the United States.  Not surprising, the results showed growing adoption of these systems with congregations realizing both environmental and financial benefits from these investments. 

Some specific highlights included:

  • A total of 1,250 congregations with PV systems in 48 states and the District of Columbia.
  • The 480 congregations added in the past two years exceeds the 400 additions identified in the 2019 biennial survey. 
  • The combined PV capacity of congregational PV systems is 105 Megawatts (MW), approaching the installed solar capacity of Facebook, the 10th largest commercial user based on most recent SEIA data.  

Two questions naturally arise from this expansion:  why are congregations accelerating their adoption of PV systems, and conversely, why aren’t more?

It’s easy to explain why adoption of PV systems is accelerating—responsibility for creation (or “creation care”) and financial benefit.  Individual congregations and entire faith traditions are increasingly aware of the adverse impacts of climate change and what needs to be done to address this at both individual and collective levels.  Statements by multiple faith traditions reflect this focus:  examples include not only Pope Francis’ well known Laudato Si’ encyclical, but also Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s (ECLA’s) social statement “Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice;” the United Methodist Church Call to Stewardship and Justice 2016 Book of Resolutions, #1033; Unitarian Seventh Principle of the interconnectedness of all life; the Jewish concern for Tikkun Olam (healing the earth); and the Mennonite Creation Care Network.  At the congregational level, we see these concerns expressed in increased attention to food and solid waste disposal reductions; increased efficiency in use of electricity, heating energy, and water; and improved management of grounds for water reduction and/or plant cultivation.  (IPL honors these efforts through its annual Cool Congregation Challenge competition.)  These initiatives occur in congregations with dozens of members, and those with thousands of members.

Favorable financial benefits are the second motivating factor.  The cost of PV systems nationwide has dropped 60% – 70% over the past 10 years.  Think about it… what product or service do you encounter that now costs one-third what it cost 10 years ago?!  As a result, an on-site PV system is economically competitive with grid (utility)-supplied electricity in more and more states—no longer just Hawaii, California and the northeastern states which were the early leaders.  Yet this is only half the change!

Recent years have seen a proliferation in companies raising funds from socially responsible investors who are willing to finance congregational PV systems through leases or power purchase agreements (PPA).  This allows the tax benefits to be captured and shared with the congregation. (The congregation itself can’t generally access these as virtually all are “non-profit” and pay no taxes.) At IPL, working with congregations, we often find the monthly payment for a lease or PPA (plus any supplemental utility-supplied electricity) is lower than the existing monthly utility payment.  And this doesn’t take into account that these utility payments will rise each year while, conversely, after a period of time, the congregation pays-off the PV lease and owns the system (paying little to nothing for its electricity).  

And it’s not only companies that offer financing.  We’ve seen several congregations in which congregants have formed Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs) to install the PV system which they then lease back to the congregation on favorable terms.   

The benefits of PV systems have become widely recognized and supported in the faith community.  As example, the Catholic Diocese in Hawaii, San Diego and Albany NY have made major investments in these systems for individual parishes, while the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire has sought to help parishes install solar PV through its “Solar Saints” program.  Loans for building projects often including green initiatives are available from numerous denominational sources such as ELCA’s Mission Investment Fund, United Church of Christ’s Cornerstone Fund, the Presbyterian Church Investment and Loan Program, and Disciples of Christ Church Extension Fund for green loans.  (With thanks to Anne Gerrietts for helping identify these and others.)  As observed by Shirley Pajanor, Chief Financial Officer at the San Diego Roman Catholic Diocese, congregations are increasingly discovering “the power of doing well by doing good” by investing in a PV system. 

So, with all these advantages, why aren’t more congregations “going solar?”  The simplest answer is that not all locations are suitable.  Roof orientation, structure and shading can be unfavorable; older buildings may need electrical upgrades.  Also, not all states are supportive of PV installations; about two-thirds of states permit leases (and PPAs), but that leaves many states in which these are not legal (including congregant LLCs).  Finally, some states have lower electricity costs than others—reducing the financial benefits.  (As example, in 2019 when the national average cost of electricity was 10.5¢ per kilowatt hour, it averaged 16¢ in California and the northeastern states (not to mention 28¢ in Hawaii) versus 7.8¢ average in Idaho, Oklahoma and Louisiana.) 

A more nuanced answer addresses the process of decision making.  Some congregations view a PV investment as a fund-raising challenge; depending on their location (state), it may or may not be— state rules regarding leases and PPAs will influence this.  And even in states where permitted, interested congregants forming a “Green Team” or similar (or Clergy, or simply a group of interested individuals) may not know where to start and are overwhelmed by the possible complications of a process they’ve never experienced and concern over the downside of making a mistake that would cost the congregation funds from an already highly constrained budget.  (IPL provides some support to congregations to help address these concerns and avoid missteps.) 

By conclusion, we expect the number of congregations installing solar PV systems to continue its expansion.  There are an estimated 440,000 religious worship buildings in the United States.  As only 1250 have installed solar PV systems, despite the challenges, there’s room for a substantial growth in years ahead.  Including, we anticipate, in Mississippi and Wyoming—the only states without PV congregations.  

Click here to see if your congregation’s solar is listed in our directory, if you don’t find, please add it by using the form there.

Contact jerry at interfaithpowerandlight.org for assistance in getting your house of worship started on going solar.

Photo:  St. John United Methodist Church in Anchorage, Alaska, the first congregation with a PV
               system in that state (photo credit Lia Slemons)

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