The blessing for the new solar panels atop St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, North Carolina, flowed seamlessly from the hour-long Sunday ritual that came before it.
There was a hymn, “Demos Gracias,” as congregants of the historically Black and now multiracial church filed outside of the sanctuary.
There was scripture: “Jesus said, ‘you are the light of the world, and you must shed light among your neighbors, so that they may see the good you do.’”
And there was even holy water, generously sprinkled on the panels as the celebrant prayed and the people refrained, “And in God’s light we see light.”
If the ceremony seemed lifted straight from the High Church prayer book, there was a reason, said Vicar Scott Benhase, a longtime priest and bishop who composed most of the solar blessing.
“I think folk recognize that being stewards of creation is part of our baptismal identity and purpose in the world,” he said afterward. “We can’t do everything, but we can do something. This is one thing we can do.”
The 116-year-old church is among dozens of faith communities in North Carolina that have gone solar in recent years, buoyed by a 2017 law requiring Duke Energy to offer rebates to nonprofits. The cash back allows even modest congregations like St. Cyprian’s to afford the upfront investment and avoid financing costs.
“We knew that was going to get us the best return,” said Ajulo Othow, a senior warden who grew up in the church and pioneered the solar plan. “The diocese gave us a grant. Combine that with the rebate and the cash out of our account, we were able to pay for it outright.”
The 53-panel array is expected to avert 524 metric tons of climate pollution and save St. Cyprian’s over $100,000 in utility bills. That math made it an easy sell, Benhase said. “The theology behind this is not complicated,” he said, “nor should it be controversial, for any church or any religious group.”
Still, congregations with solar panels represent a tiny fraction of the state’s roughly 15,000 churches, synagogues, and mosques. And with Duke’s cash-back program expiring this year, many believe a new policy is needed to help more religious institutions realize their mission of environmental stewardship.
“There’s tremendous pressure from constituents to move forward with solar,” said Scott Alexander, the North Carolina regional director of Eagle Solar and Power Light, the installer for St. Cyprian’s. “Is it going to be as easy without the rebate? Definitely not.”
‘We’re supposed to be good stewards’
Forty miles south of Oxford, in Raleigh, Eagle Solar worked last year with another historically Black church: Oak City Baptist Church, established the year the Civil War ended and a long-time fixture in the community.
The 42-kilowatt array was singled out by the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association as the rooftop solar project of the year in 2021. “This installation is a significant milestone in bringing energy justice to low- and moderate-income communities of faith,” the group said in a news release.
Explaining the church’s decision to go solar, Patrick McNair, a trustee, echoed Benhase’s “not complicated” theology. “As church people, we’re supposed to be good stewards of the Earth,” he said in an interview.
He also cited another motivation. “We have a lot of outreach that we do, but how much more could we do if we eliminated our $1200-a-month electric bill?” The savings would add up over time, McNair said, and “that amount could be spent feeding some kids or educating somebody or just providing for somebody else outside of you — and outside of Duke Energy.”
Like St. Cyprian’s, Oak City Baptist also wants to invest in batteries when costs come down. For the latter, the goal isn’t just energy independence, but to serve as an emergency center for the neighborhood when the power goes down — a not infrequent occurrence that’s likely to get worse because of climate change.
“We’re this big facility in the middle of the community,” McNair said. “It’s not a matter of if something happens; it’s a matter of when something happens.”
‘They need that rebate’
According to the sustainable energy association, Triangle-based installers Yes Solar and Southern Energy Management have had the most religious customers over the years, with 11 apiece. The companies say their clients shared aims similar to those of Oak City Baptist and St. Cyprian’s: reducing their climate footprint and saving money.
Yet even large, well-heeled congregations face barriers as nonprofit entities that don’t pay taxes. That means they can’t depreciate the value of their solar array like a business can, and they can’t take advantage of federal tax credits that currently offset 26% of the array’s cost. “You lose two financial weapons there,” said Stew Miller, Yes Solar co-founder and president.
That’s why the rebate program required in the 2017 law is so valuable, Miller and others said. Duke offers rebates of up to $75,000 for systems as large as 100 kilowatts, encompassing about 330 panels. The cash back — nearly twice as much per watt as residential customers receive — can translate to up to 40% of the cost of the total system.
Between 2011 and 2017, about four congregations per year went solar, records from the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association show. In the four years of the rebate program, the average yearly number has doubled to eight.
“We’ve always had churches and other places of worship interested in solar,” said Will Etheridge, a manager at rooftop installer Southern Energy Management, “but the rebate program helped push more of those people from solar-curious to solar adopters.”
But for all their appeal, the nonprofit rebates have been far underutilized, never reaching their cap of 2450 kilowatts per year. According to Duke, 152 nonprofits got cash back in the last four years for installing 5.5 megawatts of solar — about 18,000 panels — leaving another 4.3 megawatts untapped. About a fifth of the nonprofits that accessed the $4.1 million in rebates were congregations.
Solar installers say they’ve gotten more inquiries from communities of faith recently, perhaps because this is the last year Duke will give out rebates. But if history is any indication, there will still be unused capacity after the utility allocates its last round of grants in July.
“Churches want to do this. They’d like the rebate — they need that rebate,” Miller said. “But it’s still difficult to put together a model for a church and show them it’s going to pay for itself over a reasonable period of time.”
‘Perfect places to put solar’
The law allows any leftovers to be distributed in 2023, but they must be open to all classes of customers, not just nonprofits. And since there has always been far more demand from residential customers than supply, homeowners are likely to snatch up the bulk of whatever gets distributed next year.
Without the chance for rebates, more nonprofits may take advantage of another aspect of the 2017 law, a work-around for the state’s long-standing prohibition on third party sales, in which only regulated utilities — not solar companies — may sell electricity.
Under the law, institutions still can’t buy kilowatt-hours from an entity other than Duke, but they can rent the panels from a for-profit solar company that can access tax credits. “The owner of the equipment, in this case, Eagle Solar, monetizes the tax benefit,” Alexander said, “and [nonprofits] end up paying a smaller lease amount.”
Still, Eagle Solar is among the few companies in the state that offers a leasing program, and even Alexander said policy is needed for faith communities that prefer to buy systems outright.
Federal Build Back Better legislation includes a solution. Instead of tax credits that nonprofits can’t use, the government would offer a 30% cash rebate for solar installations. While the legislation is languishing in the U.S. Senate, hopes are still high that its clean energy provisions will be passed into law.
“If Build Back Better passes in some form, and that direct pay is in there, we’ll still have pretty good business,” said Eagle Solar’s Alexander.
Failing that, Miller is wishing for a state-level solution. “I hope somehow Duke steps up and continues the program for nonprofits, or comes up with a different program, because it just makes sense,” he said. “These beautiful churches and parish halls have a lot of roof space on them. They’re just perfect places to put solar.”