West Virginia Earth Care Congregation draws interest in solar power

Innovative financing makes solar a win-win in the region

by Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service

Presbyterian Earth Care Congregations support and mentor one another in initiatives like solar panels. Keith Mills (center) of Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, recently visited Nathaniel “Than” Hitt (left) and Dan Conant of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church to learn more about the project. (Photo provided)

LOUISVILLE – For members of the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church of West Virginia, solar power is the wave of the future. While the cost of converting to solar energy can be high, the congregation has found some innovative ways to make it happen without breaking the bank.

“Both sides of my family are from West Virginia and coal mining is a part of our heritage here and people are very conscious about that,” said church member Nathaniel “Than” Hitt. “People are very interested in finding better ways to power our communities and find a more peaceful way of providing for the things we need.”

Hitt, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has been heavily involved with the church’s initiative the past few years. In his day job, he works specifically with river and stream fisheries in the region. He says his work on climate and land use has helped him see the importance of clean energy.

West Virginia, Hitt says, is in the middle of a debate about the future and the role churches and other non profits play when it comes to energy savings.

“Our church has taken a look at our energy budget because of our commitment as an Earth Care Congregation,” he said. “This helped us think about how we’re using energy and how we can be better stewards of our money to power the church.”

The main energy supplier for the church and surrounding communities is the Mount Storm Power Station, which is fueled primarily by mountaintop removal coal mining operations. Church members and others see it as a problem because it is not a long-term answer to energy needs.

Hitt says Shepherdstown has been interested in solar energy for some time and they’ve come up with new ideas on how to finance it.

“There are three drivers for our work. We want to do the right thing for our earth through creation care,” he said. “Secondly, we want to do the right thing financially and be good financial stewards. The third driver is building community. We want to reach out and do something constructive in a welcoming way that involves community members and the congregation.”

Hitt says the solar powered operation has been up and running for two years now.

“This was the first time in West Virginia that a community supported a system like this,” he said. “It’s important because we designed a financing system that would allow the church to avoid a big capital campaign to finance this. We did it through a creative crowd sourcing vehicle.”

According to Hitt, the church used revenue from home water heater demand savings programs for the project, which allowed the power company to cut power at peak times, thus saving money and passing the savings back to subscribers.

“Home electric water heaters burn a lot of energy and regional power grid operators value the ability to cut the demand at a moment’s notice to avoid turning on large generators,” Hitt said. “Grid operators have to fire up their auxiliary systems, which are extremely polluting and expensive.”

Hitt says that linking in all of the congregation’s home electric water heaters generates more than $100 per household per year, and the money goes to fund the solar investment. Hitt also says that public libraries and other charities in West Virginia have taken on the model and it is spreading.

“If every church would look at its energy budget, they’d find there are thousands of dollars available if they will do things like switch to LED lighting,” Hitt said. “Other things like programmable thermostat settings are also helpful to create a revenue stream to finance solar production.”

Hitt says they’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm in the church for the project.

“One of our slogans is, Solar energy gives us physical as well as meta-physical energy.’ People are excited about this and love the idea that Shepherdstown has embraced this,” he said. “Churches and other organizations are joining up and it has generated a lot of attention.”

“Congregations like Shepherdstown Presbyterian are saving energy and investing in renewable energy — important parts of Christian discipleship that both do good for God’s creation and save congregations’ precious financial resources,” said Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, which also houses the Earth Care Congregation program.

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Click here for more information about becoming an Earth Care Congregation.

Environmental Ministries is part of the Presbyterian Hunger Program and is made possible by gifts through the One Great Hour of Sharing.

For more information from Shepherdstown and other Presbyterian churches that have gone solar, click here.


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