In West Virginia the true costs of cheap energy are impossible to ignore. This year thousands suffered through the loss of their drinking water due to a coal chemical spill. Communities in the coalfields are being exposed to carcinogenic mine dust. And hundreds of mountains and streams have been devastated. We see this as an environmental and public health emergency.
Yet the current political winds in Charleston give us little hope in leadership from our state officials. Over the last 2 state legislative sessions, we have witnessed the loss of 2 provisions supporting solar power in West Virginia, and we are bracing for deeper cuts in 2015.
Electricity in this state remains highly subsidized, relatively cheap, and predominately generated from coal, providing 95% of the state’s power. Although energy prices here are increasing, and the costs for solar are dropping, the distance between these still presents an important barrier for solar. In some states, solar leasing provides a solution to this problem, but that is currently not an option under West Virginia law.
The Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church (SPC) community has long recognized the importance of solar power. When a fellowship hall was added to the church 15 years ago, the planners discussed how the south-facing roof would be an ideal location for solar panels. However, the loan debt from the annex project made it necessary to put the prospect of solar on hold.
We helped develop an innovative crowdfunding campaign to solarize the church. This approach did not depend on state or federal incentives programs, nor did it require a loan or capital campaign. Instead, we partnered with Mosaic Power (Fredrick, MD) and Solar Holler (Shepherdstown, WV) to harness energy savings from homeowners’ electric water heaters, bundle them together, and use them to finance our solar project.
Here’s how it works: an electrician installs a small remote-control on your water heater. Then grid operators can use this to turn off your water heater for short periods of peak energy demand on the grid (less than 5 minutes). This reduces their use of diesel backup power generators to satisfy peak energy demands (more than tripling the carbon savings of the solar panels). Homeowners receive payments for the use of their water heaters, which they donated to offset the cost of the solar project. There was no cost for homeowners to participate and no noticeable effect on their hot water supply.
SPC formed a solar committee to pursue this opportunity in July 2013. The committee met with solar industry experts and vetted multiple competitive bids for the solar installation. We promoted this project through congregational and public meetings, tabling at local events, and in social media. 85 households participated, enough to finance the system in 5 years (through an LLC created to facilitate this project by a SPC member). SPC paid $1 for this system and will benefit immediately from decreased energy bills.
This August we dedicated our 16.2 kW system (60 panels) in the company of the Shepherdstown community, the SPC pastor and congregation, local elected officials, the press, and over a hundred schoolchildren. The church yard was packed for the ribbon cutting event, and the weather was perfect. We celebrated not only the first solar project for a Presbyterian church in the state, but also the launch of a new strategy that will allow churches and other non-profits to go solar in West Virginia.
November was our first full month of solar production, and the system is performing well (see www.bit.ly/SPCsolar). In addition to the physical energy, this project is giving us some important meta-physical energy as well. We have become more aware of our connection to energy issues, the consequences of the status-quo both in our state and for our shared climate, and our capacity to make positive change.
Already, the approach we helped pioneer has been adopted by the Harpers Ferry Public Library (they will be installing solar panels this spring). We’ve also received requests from other churches in town about how to do this. We believe this approach is powerful not only for its financial design but also because it connects to our core belief that our individual actions can be magnified when in concert with others.
We set out with three fundamental goals for this project: (1) reduce our greenhouse gas emissions; (2) improve our financial stewardship of SPC; and (3) empower our congregation and the Shepherdstown community to make positive change for clean energy. We believe we have met these goals, and feel blessed to be able to share the good news.
Our ribbon cutting event received national media attention and was widely distributed on social media. A story about our project by the Center for American Progress, posted on ThinkProgress, was shared over 6300 times via Facebook and tweeted hundreds of times. USA Today reported our story, and it was covered by the AP and every major newspaper in the state – one headline described the project as “A New Way Forward for Energy in West Virginia,” something that so many in the state are eager to embrace.
Part of the excitement may be that people are seeing we have learned – that we can help build clean power by combining energy savings from our homes. This work has empowered our congregation and the Shepherdstown community to build something together that would be impossible to do alone. SPC members have known for years why it is important to go solar; this project showed us how to do it, and in so doing provides a pathway for others.