When the Bible quotes God declaring “Let there be light,” it wasn’t exactly referring to solar power.
But across Minnesota, there’s been an unprecedented surge in religious congregations installing rooftop solar panels, subscribing to off-site solar “gardens” and urging their faithful to do the same.
The most ambitious project is slated for this fall at Shiloh Temple International Ministries in north Minneapolis, which will build a solar garden on its roof, make energy available for up to 40 neighbors, and be part of a solar installation job-training program for lower-income workers.
“We’d call it a ‘kairos moment’ — a time when everything happens,’ ” said the Rev. Gwin Pratt, retired pastor of St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka, which is now solar-powered.
“Everything” refers to the stars aligning on several fronts. For starters, many denominations have made it a priority to shrink their carbon footprint. Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change is one of the most recent calls to action.
Meanwhile, a 2013 state energy law created financial incentives to invest in solar power and a mandate for more renewable energy. The price of solar has dropped more than 50 percent in recent years, while efficiency has improved.
The result: Religious groups, which for years have had green teams and “creation care” committees promoting energy audits and other eco-friendly projects, are now getting crash courses in electrical grids and energy transfers.
It’s difficult to measure the exact level of activity, but key figures indicate churches are looking to the heavens to save the Earth.
• Nearly 70 faith groups have applied for financial incentives to install solar since the Made in Minnesota incentive program began in 2014, according to the state Department of Commerce. About one in five have been lucky winners.
• At least five large “solar gardens” are being explored across the metro by Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, a nonprofit working with more than 400 congregations on energy issues, including about 100 interested in solar, said Julia Frost Nerbonne, its executive director.
Two of the gardens are near the installation stage: the one at Shiloh and another in Edina, she said. Church members and others can subscribe to receive energy from them.
More than 1,000 faithful are on track to subscribe to these and other pending gardens.
“If we keep up this pace, faith communities will have signed up at least 2,000 households for community solar gardens by the end of 2017,” said Sean Gosiewski, executive director of the Alliance for Sustainability, a Minneapolis nonprofit working with faith groups.
“I’d be surprised if there were more than a couple thousand households [with solar] in the entire state now.”
Indeed, only about 2,000 Minnesota households now tap solar energy, according to the Commerce Department.
Making the pitch
Last week, Megan O’Hara stood before the “Lunch & Learn” group in the social hall of Church of St. Patrick in Edina to try to power up interest in that city’s solar experiment. Edina’s public utility building is planning to host solar panels that could generate power for about 90 homes, she said, but it must have all the subscriptions filled first, she said.
O’Hara was representing Just Community Solar, a Twin Cities coalition working to make solar power accessible to all. The folks at the lunch tables peppered her with questions, such as: What happens during sun-starved Minnesota winters? (Less power is generated, but the summer makes up for it.) And why only 90 families? (That’s as much energy as the solar garden can generate.)
Folks typically ask about savings, said Bruce Konewko of Cooperative Energy Futures, the project’s solar developer. He estimated energy savings starting about 7 percent a year and 23 percent over the life of a 25-year contract.
Following a lively discussion, O’Hara ended with: “Feel free to tell your friends and neighbors about this new option.”
Such conversations are happening across Minnesota, across faith groups.
The Diocese of St. Cloud is exploring tapping into a solar garden to be built in the St. Cloud area to provide energy for its diocesan offices.
First Presbyterian Church in Stillwater, St. Peder’s Lutheran Church and Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis are looking into solar garden subscriptions for their buildings and/or their members.
The Imam Husain Islamic Center in Brooklyn Center is among the religious institutions planning to install its own solar panels, joining the likes of First United Church of Christ in Northfield and St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Roseville.
A coalition of four Unitarian Universalist churches in the Twin Cities has contracted with developer Minnesota Community Solar to build a solar garden that could provide energy for up to 500 church members and friends. About 100 households have already signed up.
For years solar power was touted as a way to reduce fossil fuel consumption and cut energy bills. Many religious leaders have added a new priority: to make solar power available to people who lack access to renewable energy. They call it “energy equity.”
“It’s a justice issue that fits with other justice issues — racial justice, economic justice, social justice,” said the Rev. Dwight Wagenius, a minister at Mayflower Church in Minneapolis and board chairman at Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.
Energy ‘that God built’
Arnetta Phillips, community outreach minister at Shiloh Temple International Ministries, said that was one reason her church agreed to its project. She said the project reflects both the church’s mission to be “a helpmate” to the North Side, and its belief in the holiness of God’s creation.
“Solar energy comes from the natural creation that God built,” said Phillips. “It gives us the opportunity to show that all things are possible.”
Keith Dent, a North Sider who trained in solar installations last year, is so enthused that he launched the first “Just-B-Solar”children’s camp at Shiloh this month. The kids built solar-powered boats, powered a tiny village and toured Ten K Solar, a manufacturer of solar panels in Bloomington.
Obstacles remain. The cost of a rooftop solar array is still too high for most houses of worship without state incentives. Volunteers must devote considerable time to understanding solar technology and financing. And because they are nonprofits, churches don’t qualify for federal incentives.
But faith groups are surging forward.
“Solar is now a topic you can talk about in church meetings, from the pulpit,” said Wagenius. “It’s an area where the church has an important role to play.”