Ned Barnett

A faithful turn to a higher power – the sun

By Ned Barnett

A GOD’S EYE VIEW: An array of 326 solar panels have transformeed the roof of United Church of Chapel Hill.
A GOD’S EYE VIEW: An array of 326 solar panels have transformeed the roof of United Church of Chapel Hill.

Religion and the sun have mixed since the ancient days of sun worshipers, but now faith and the sun are joining in a new way through a commitment to solar power.

Churches and synagogues in North Carolina are being cooled, heated and lit by the energy created by the Bible’s first command – “Let there be light.”

The latest and one of the most dramatic examples of this religious energy conversion is on display at United Church of Chapel Hill. The 900-member United Church of Christ congregation combined a church roof repair with a massive installation of solar panels. The array will cut United Church’s use of electricity generated by traditional sources by about half.

Rev. Richard Edens, who along with his wife Jill has served as co-pastor of the church for 37 years, says the turn toward solar started in 2011 when a church committee started to consider ways to save energy and use more energy from renewable sources. The effort evolved from ways of saving on the electric bill to saving the planet’s climate.

“We did a lot of the small energy saving things and then we realized that was not enough,” Edens said last week. “We realized we were going to have to do something bold. That’s why we started looking at solar.”

On Nov. 6, the result of that bold move started generating electricity from 326 solar panels. The $240,000 project was paid for by the congregation and has transformed the church’s flat roof with a look visible only to birds, people in airplanes and, one supposes, God.

Edens calls the array, “A billboard for care of God’s creation.” The system will generate 110,920 kilowatt hours of electricity each year and is expected to trim the church’s electric bill by $8,000 to $10,000 annually. A statement from the church says that amount of solar-generated electricity is the equivalent to eliminating 149,000 vehicle miles from the road, preventing the burning of 90,000 pounds of coal or planting 1,760 trees.

Appropriately, the billboard has gone up as heads of state, scientists and policy makers will meet this week in Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The meeting will seek international agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cope with climate change. But a congregation gathered beneath the solar panels at the United Church of Chapel Hill shows how the solution to climate change will ultimately rely on actions by small groups and individuals.

Places of worship are especially attuned to the idea that the global problem needs local solutions. Other churches and synagogues in Chapel Hill and Greensboro have installed solar arrays, Edens said.

Church action on climate change is being encouraged by an initiative called North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light. NCIPL is supporting the utility watchdog group NC WARN in a test case that could open more church rooftops to solar power. In the case now before state regulators, NC WARN is defending an arrangement in which it paid for the installation of a solar array on the roof of a Greensboro church and is being paid back as the church buys the electricity.

The deal runs counter to a North Carolina law banning non-utilities from selling electricity. Changing it to allow exceptions for nonprofits would help churches who feel a mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but lack the capital to pay for a solar array.

Edens said that mandate is clear. “We have a climate that is stressed and it’s God’s creation, and we have a role in being co-creators. We needed to do something other than what we've been doing and solar is one of the ways we can move away from carbon.”

While there was much discussion about how to do the solar power installation, Edens says there no debate about whether it should be done.

“It’s been very positive,” Edens said of the reaction. “People are very excited about it.”

A monitor is set up in the church that shows how much power the array is generating. And, in a broader sense, how much of God’s creation one church is saving.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com