Written by Emily Mullins
The Rev. Debbie Clark tried for years to find a way to install solar panels on the roof of Edwards Church United Church of Christ. But each time she contacted an installation company or had an expert inspect the Framingham, Mass., building, she was told the same thing: the church was too small and the cost too high for it to be worthwhile. She wasn't sure the idea would ever come to fruition until she came across a solar panel leasing program advertised by Massachusetts Interfaith Power and Light, an organization that provides a faith-based response to climate change. After reading the details, Clark believed she could finally make her vision a reality.
"We feel very strongly about caring for God's planet and had been trying for seven or eight years to figure out a way to practice what we preach," she said. "This was the way we could make it happen."
Edwards Church UCC was one of 10 area churches Massachusetts Interfaith Power and Light selected to participate in the program. From there, an investment company called Technology Credit Corporation will purchase the solar panels, which will be installed and maintained by a third company, SunBug Solar. For the next 10 years, each church will pay a monthly fee to Technology Credit Corporation for use of the panels, which Clark says will be less than or equal to its current monthly energy costs. After 10 years, each church can buy the solar panels from Technology Credit Corporation for 20 percent of their original cost. With a number of churches on board, small congregations like Edwards UCC are just a piece of the larger overall project, making it worthwhile for all parties involved.
"For the first 10 years, we are not doing this to save money – we are doing this because we want solar panels," Clark explained. "Within 13-14 years, we will have free electricity, but up until then, financially, it's a wash. We're doing it because it's the right thing to do."
While Clark admits the paperwork, contracts and overall process were a bit of a hassle, she knows there was no other way her 150-member congregation could have taken on such a project given its size and limited funds. While there are tax incentives and rebate programs available for renewable energy projects, the congregation's tax-exempt status meant it does not qualify to receive any of them. Knowing the congregation could financially support this $82,000 project with little, if any, money required upfront was an opportunity Clark and the church council couldn't pass up. Congregation members were just as enthusiastic, with many of them asking Clark about the status of the project each week.
"When we finally got the 40-page contract and had to involve the many different players, I was curious if folks were going to say it was too risky, let it go," Clark said. "But there was a strong consensus that, we know we can't spend money we don't have, but if we can possibly do it, we should do it."
In Massachusetts, where the sun is not always guaranteed to shine, the position of the panels was very important. The church's Edwards Hall has a south-facing, simple roof that is a perfect space for the installation, which is expected to take place in late February or early March. The building is also adjacent to an elementary school, and Clark is collaborating with school administrators to have students observe the installation and turn it into an educational opportunity about alternative energy. All of this aligns with Edwards Church's other earth care initiatives like tree plantings, book discussions and movie screenings.
"This is the first chance we've really had to do more than just talk about it," Clark said of her congregation's environmental concern. "It's important not to think that only the big churches can do these things, but with a collaboration of churches, that it's doable for a small congregation. Hopefully we can encourage other people to wonder what's going on in their areas too."
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 is a preview of Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days.
Visit ucc.org/earth for more information or join the movement on Facebook.