If imitation is the best form of flattery, then the members of First Congregational UCC in Asheville, N.C., have many reasons to feel flattered. The church's 2011 solar panel installation project has since inspired congregations from as far away as the West Coast to reach out for advice on how to do the same thing. Going one step further, its neighbor, Elon (N.C.) Community Church UCC, used the Asheville congregation's plan and model to achieve its goal of a solar panel installation earlier this year.
"We're very excited we were able to take the lead on this around here," said the Rev. Joe Hoffman, pastor of First Congregational UCC. "There has been a lot of positive feedback from the community and from other churches who want to do this too. If it's something we can inspire others to do, we're glad we can help."
The idea of installing solar panels at First Congregational UCC had been on the table for a few years, but the cost was a hurdle Hoffman wasn't sure the environmentally-conscious congregation could overcome. While there are many tax and rebate incentives available for eco-friendly home and building upgrades, churches do not qualify for them because of their tax-exempt status.
Working with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy (AIRE), a nonprofit organization that helps community groups develop and own affordable renewable energy systems, they were able to develop a unique funding model that involved individual donors coming together to form an LLC, which, as a stand-alone business, is able to receive the incentives and rebates. The congregation found nine donors, mostly members, who invested $5,000 each, which paid for the installation of 42 panels. The LLC rents the roof space from First Congregational for $100 per year, and the energy generated from the 10-kilowatt system is currently sold to the local electric company. With the revenue made from the electric company combined with the tax rebates, the investors should make all of their money back in about six years. At that time, the LLC can donate or sell the solar panels to the congregation, which can then decide how to use the energy.
Acknowledging that the congregation is not yet benefitting from the solar panels financially, Hoffman said, "We did it in part because we wanted to show that churches and faith communities need to be on board for caring for the earth."
The funding model created for First Congregational has since become AIRE's standard for churches, and is the same one used by Elon Community Church UCC. Like First Congregational, Elon UCC is also a very eco-friendly congregation, and when it purchased a new building a few years ago, it wanted to make it as green as possible. In addition to insulated roof panels, automatic light sensors, low-flush toilets, low-VOC paint, energy-efficient appliances, LED light bulbs, double-paned windows and automatic faucets, the group was also interested in solar panels. David Andes, chair of Elon's Green Church Committee, heard about First Congregational's project while at a local environmental conference, and even visited their facility to see it firsthand. Andes got in touch with AIRE and began the process, which took about two years to fully complete.
"We visited the Asheville church to see the results of what they had done," Andes said. "We liked their attitude as well as their [energy] production, and thought it would be a good thing to pursue."
Because Elon Community UCC was also in the middle of the capital campaign for the new building, the congregation chose to do a smaller solar panel project with the hopes of adding more panels to it later. Five members formed an LLC and purchased 20 solar panels, a five-kilowatt system that produces 5.5 percent of the building's energy, or the equivalent to planting 900 trees or removing 8,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year. The local electric company is currently purchasing the generated energy and the congregation will also own their panels in about six years. Like First Congregational, Elon is not currently seeing the tangible benefits of the renewable energy just yet, but they love the message they are sending.
"Eventually it will save the church money," Andes said "But it was really to make an environmental statement and have an impact. We want to be a witness to the community and show that earth care is part of who we are as a congregation."
Both congregations have new eco-minded projects in the works and are excited about the upcoming Mission 4/1 Earth campaign, the UCC's church-wide earth care initiative beginning Easter Monday, April 1. For example, First Congregational is looking into replacing its failing boiler system with a geothermal unit, and Elon Community UCC is planning a tree planting event through the Arbor Day Foundation. But both congregations are also proud of the environmental goals they have already achieved, and encourage other groups to choose a goal, no matter how big or small, learn from others, and get started.
"The key thing for a church is to find a group of people who are interested in this, get together and make a beginning," Andes said. "It doesn't matter too much where you begin because it's an ongoing process of educating yourself and educating your congregation. Small changes matter because you can't do it all at once."
The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.
With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.
Here's a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days.
Visit ucc.org/earth for more information or join the movement on Facebook.