Faith in solar: Towards equitable communities.

“This means that even as we revolutionize our energy, economic, and political systems, we must do so in a way that also dismantles classism, white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia, and other social evils.” — Tim DeChristopher, Harvard Divinity School.

roofThe sun, when it is out, doesn’t pick favourites. It shines on the rich and the poor, progressive and conservative, young and old. In the west, where the interrelatedness of environmental degradation to poverty, racism and white privilege is finally being acknowledged, our challenge is to ensure that everyone under the sun benefits from the power we can harness from it.
Solar energy, as available as the sun itself, is a tangible, low carbon-intense, innovative way to advance equitable societies. We’ve known this for decades. But for economic and political reasons, it has largely remained out of reach.


That is changing. Around the planet, groups of individuals are coming together to challenge fossil fuel dependency and its devastating outcome (climate change), especially on the poorest of people.
The growing global climate justice movement is presenting to us all a number of important new concepts. One of them is Energy Democracy. The goal of energy democracy is to deepen access and control of that local residents have over their local energy, in a way that makes communities more healthier, stabilizes energy costs and promotes climate solutions. In other words, it strives to put control of energy back in the hands of citizens. And particularly it strives to equalize access to power generation – in all its forms.


Faith communities are natural fit in this task. Not only do many religious buildings own perfectly angled rooftops for installations to receive the sun’s light, but the essence of almost all faith teachings and philosophies give clear direction for stewarding the earth, and taking care of the poor. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is transitioning over 6,000 mosques to solar, as this is being written.


Ontario faith communities are particularly at an advantage, where the Feed in Tariff —the government’s offer of a twenty-year contract to feed solar back into the grid—has been structured so that people with little money can access the system, and can thus participate in democratizing and decentralizing energy production.


“This is the first time in history that a small group of people, with limited funds, can actually hook into the grid and make this happen. And the trick is that money is rolled right back into our community,” Reverend Doug Moore of Laidlaw United Church, boldly states.


Thanks to his vision, Laidlaw became the first church in Hamilton, Ontario to take advantage of Ontario’s feed-in-tariff when it went solar in 2010. While other churches were afraid of the possible risk involved, Moore was able to convince the presbytery to put out the money. In particular he countered the notion that solar energy only benefits the rich, saying:
“This is a group of widows [at the church]. We are the poor people who have found the capacity to put this on our roof,” Moore says. “While solar generation used to be this individualistic pursuit, “I’ve got my solar panels and my battery; I’m off grid,” what’s shifted is that it is becoming a public system,” Moore continues.


Moore’s view is that solar benefits everyone: “If you are rich and you want to stay rich, get solar. If you’re poor and you want to get richer, get solar. If you are just a “green” person and you want things to get greener, get solar. If you are a person who doesn’t care about environment and you want your air condition to work this summer, and prevent the grid from crashing, get solar.”
Going solar is one of the most important ways that faith groups can show their confidence in and commitment to future generations. “If you don’t have hope in the future, you are not going to be putting on solar panels,” Moore insists.


Groups working towards promoting solar justice arrays
Faith communities can support one another in going solar, deepening connections and interfaith relations, and taking care of our communities for the good of all people. Faith and the Common Good (FCG) is a country-wide, interfaith organization that offers faith groups support and assistance in greening their places of worship in accordance to their faith teachings. It promotes the sharing of resources and networking opportunities across the country. It is grounded in a belief that faith groups can learn best practices from each other.


In the USA, Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based group in Minnesota, is doing similar work “to bring solar justice to solar power” and to provide affordable, decentralized (off the grid) community solar. With developers, they are seeking to build “solar community garden” projects that will not only offer employment opportunities that focus on skill development of low-income workers from the community but will also maximize the ability of low-income residents to purchase or lease a part of the array (pay-go, revolving loan fund, on-bill financing).


One possibility includes requiring half a solar garden’s energy to be purchased by a group of congregations. The congregations could use a subscription to offset the energy used in the buildings they own. The other half of the subscription would be sold to parishioners looking to support solar and receive credit on their utility bills. The same approach could work for an individual congregation.
Whatever the route a faith group goes, with or without a rooftop, investing in solar is an act of justice seeking. It’s a piece of our shared faithful work toward a better, cleaner, fairer world.