The first thing anyone notices when they arrive at First Congregational Christian UCC in Chesterfield, Va., is an array of solar panels right above the front entrance. Installed in December and activated in January, the panels are a new development for the congregation that has been increasing its environmental efforts. And the fact that the panels are front and center for all to see is one of Gail Christie's favorite parts of the project.
"You can't miss them, which we like," said Christie, chair of First Congregational's Mission and Outreach Committee. "It makes a very visual statement of what we're about."
Two years ago, Christie collected some information about solar panels from a booth at the Richmond Vegetarian Festival. But like many smaller congregations, the 70-member First Congregational initially thought a solar panel installation was out of its price range. But in November, Christie got in touch with Secure Futures LLC, a company that helps tax-exempt entities acquire solar-power solutions. Quickly coming to an agreement, Secure Futures LLC owns and operates the solar panels and also benefits from any tax incentives and rebates, and First Congregational has a 20-year service agreement with the company to host the solar array and use the generated electricity for a fixed monthly fee.
"We got really lucky," Christie said. "It is very affordable and we didn't have to pay any of the upfront costs for the array."
First Congregational currently has 14 260-watt panels that generate about 10-12 percent of the building's electricity. Christie said the congregation would like to add more panels to the project in the future, with hopes of eventually generating 50 percent of its electricity. To do this, the congregation needs to first conduct a shade analysis on the building's rear roof that is shaded by a few large trees. Rather than cut the trees down, the congregation would like to see how many panels they could fit on the un-shaded parts of the roof, and the best places for them to be installed.
The fixed price the congregation pays to Secure Futures LLC combined with the energy cost savings makes the project a wash financially, said Christie, but adds that they are perfectly happy with that.
"It was never to save money – it was always about the environmental impact," said Christie. "If we can pay the same amount using solar, that's a good thing."
First Congregational started getting serious about the environment a few years ago when it replaced all of its disposable kitchenware with reusable items. The congregation has since implemented an extensive recycling program, planted a garden, and serves as a distribution site for the local farm-to-family co-op program through Fall Line Farms. The congregation is also planning to participate in the UCC's church-wide earth care initiative, Mission 4/1 Earth, by conducting an environmental advocacy letter-writing campaign and continuing to educate the congregation and the community about environmental stewardship. The official dedication ceremony of its solar panels will take place March 24 as part of the Mission 4/1 Earth kickoff.
"I feel like we're already doing it," Christie said of Mission 4/1 Earth. "Although, we are always looking for new ideas."
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.