Commentary: A South Carolina solar farm ties bittersweet memories to a healthier future

The first time we tried to find the solar farm dedicated to the memory of Loretta’s daughter, we got lost. We had to knock on somebody’s door for help. In a rural corner of South Carolina, we drove past a soybean field, turned down a dirt road, and then suddenly, there it was: over 200,000 solar panels, shining in the sun and generating enough clean, healthy solar energy to power over 1,100 homes.

Rev. Leo Woodberry and Loretta Slater

That solar farm — the Whitney M. Slater Shared Solar Facility — is being dedicated today. It’s the culmination of years of work, countless meetings and an army of partners working to empower a low- and middle-income community with energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy. And it’s part of a national movement to make sure every American — no matter where they live, how much they earn or what the color of their skin might be — can reap the benefits of the global move toward 100% clean energy.

Whitney M. Slater — Loretta’s daughter, the solar farm’s namesake — was a nursing student at North Carolina State when she died of breast cancer at the age of 21. Whitney was known for always helping others, even before she got sick, and once diagnosed she made it her mission to talk to people about environmental health and breast cancer awareness.

At the New Alpha Community Development Corporation, we worked to make the community solar farm a reality because our neighbors understand the need for cleaner, healthier air. African-American children are  twice as likely as white children to be hospitalized for asthma, and four times as likely to die from it. Heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and a host of other health problems are tied to air pollution, and moving to energy sources that don’t pollute makes for longer, healthier lives.

And then there’s the weather. This summer, we South Carolinians have sweated through extreme heat. We’ve seen rainfall events so severe we’ve been told not to drive because the roads can’t handle the runoff. We endured Hurricane Irma last year, Hurricane Matthew the year before that, and epic floods the year before that. Scientists tell us that as the planet heats up, we can expect more severe and more frequent extreme weather events like these.

For the past few months, the two of us have been visiting states all across the South with the Justice First Tour to promote climate justice. Southern communities are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Coastal communities face sea level rise and more severe hurricanes. Rural families that depend on crops and forests struggle as heat stress increases and pests expand their ranges. City families suffer from asthma and other respiratory and heart problems as air quality continues to be a problem.

Switching from fossil fuels to clean energy addresses these problems, while also creating immense economic opportunities, all across our state. It’s a responsible way to preserve and protect God’s creation, including His children.

The new solar farm is part of Duke Energy’s new Shared Solar program, which allows renters and people who aren’t able to put solar panels on their property to share in solar energy’s promise. We asked Duke to help lower-income people participate, and they have set aside money to waive the initial connection fee for 400 families.

Of course, switching to clean energy doesn’t help much with your energy bills if your house has leaky windows and doors and not enough insulation. We talked to Duke about that, too, and the power company is offering 1,500 free energy-efficiency upgrades to low-income families.

We thank Duke, and South Carolina Rep. Robert Williams, Pine Gate Renewables, and all the community and state organizations that made this solar farm possible.

And now, there is so much more to do.

The whole world is shifting to clean energy, and especially now that plans for the multi-billion-dollar V. C. Summer nuclear plant have fallen apart, we in South Carolina have the extraordinary opportunity to be a part of the historic shift to 100% clean energy.

If renewable energy can work in the middle of Dillon County’s soybean fields, it can work anywhere. By embracing clean power, we can grow our economy and create good jobs for people in every corner of our state and our nation — while building a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future for all of us.

Loretta Slater co-founded the Whitney M. Slater Foundation to provide environmental health education, expand breast cancer awareness, and facilitate scholarships in memory of her daughter. The Rev. Leo Woodberry is pastor of Kingdom Living Temple in Florence, South Carolina, and executive director of the New Alpha Community Development Corporation.  

Comments are closed.