Advancing Solar Adoption in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Communities One House of Worship at a Time

May 20, 2024 by Andreas Karelas, RE-volv, and Kamyria Coney, NREL

Successes and lessons learned by a Solar Energy Innovation Network (SEIN) multi-stakeholder team brings solar to houses of worship led by Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of NREL, the U.S. Department of Energy, or the U.S. government.

An installers talking between rows of rooftop solar panels
Solar installer with ProSolar Systems California on the roof of the Watts-Willowbrook Church in Compton, California, with completed solar system. Photo from RE-volv

Watts-Willowbrook Church has been serving its community in Compton, California, for more than 40 years. "The Brook," as it's known by community members, is now a beacon of clean energy and resilience. Showcasing a 14-kW rooftop solar array with a battery storage system, as well as a series of resiliency workshops planned over the coming months, Watts-Willowbrook Church will provide members of the community with critical resilience services during emergency events, which might include electric grid blackouts, heatwaves, or unhealthy air quality days due to wildfires.

This resiliency hub is one project made possible by a SEIN Round 3 partnership to solarize BIPOC-led houses of worship. The project is led by RE-volv, in partnership with Interfaith Power & Light (IPL) and Green the Church.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-Led Houses of Worship Solar Initiative

RE-volv, IPL, and Green the Church have been working together for several years by helping houses of worship go solar, celebrating those successes in the community, and storytelling. RE-volv is a nonprofit that finances solar projects for fellow nonprofits, such as schools, foodbanks, homeless shelters, and houses of worship. IPL and Green the Church are two faith-based organizations leading the charge to help congregations go solar and take action to reduce climate change impacts. IPL works with interfaith groups around the country, and Green the Church works with Black churches specifically.

Unlocking Solar Tax Incentives for Houses of Worship and Other Nonprofits

A photo looking down at a solar array on the roof of a large church in an urban setting.
Hope United Methodist Church in South San Francisco, California, completing its 27-kW solar system. Photo from RE-volv

Since the early 2000s, one driver of U.S. solar energy deployment has been the solar investment tax credit, which provided up to 30% of the on-site solar system cost. However, houses of worship are nonprofit organizations, which means they don't pay taxes and historically could not capture the tax credits when directly purchasing solar systems. For more information, refer to Federal Solar Tax Credits for Businesses on the U.S. Department of Energy website.

The passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in 2022, including the Justice40 provision requiring 40% of funding to be invested in communities impacted by environmental injustice, will help ensure that the clean energy transition is equitable. One provision of the IRA of 2022, which you can learn about on the U.S. Department of Energy website, that is particularly critical to achieving these goals is unlocking the solar investment tax credit for nonprofits through a mechanism known as Direct Pay. Learn more about clean energy tax credits on the U.S. Treasury Department's website.

Why It Matters: Understanding the Ripple Effect of Solar

a group of happy people hold a pair of large scissors for a ribbon-cutting ceremony

Faith Baptist Church in East Oakland, California, celebrates its new solar system with a ribbon cutting celebration. Photo from RE-volv

In 2019, a rooftop photovoltaics (PV) study in Nature found that, compared to no-majority census tracts, Black-majority census tracts had installed 61% less solar, Hispanic-majority tracts installed 45% less, and white-majority tracts had 37% more. However, the authors of the paper also found that "when communities of color are initially seeded—or have first-hand access to rooftop PV technologies—the deployment significantly increases compared with other racial/ethnic groups. These results suggest that appropriately "seeding" racial and ethnic minority communities may mitigate energy injustice in rooftop PV adoption.

Recently, Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) and NREL researchers expanded on these findings in an LBNL journal article, showcasing that nonresidential solar installations, including nonprofits and houses of worship, influence local residential PV adoption dramatically. On average, they found that one nonresidential solar installation would yield three to five new residential installations per quarter in the community for years to come (e.g., around 80 installations in just 5 years.)

Motivations, Barriers, and Solutions

The SEIN team found that houses of worship have unique motivations for going solar. First, these groups may be motivated by their moral and ethical duty to steward the Earth. Like all nonprofits, houses of worship are also motivated by long-term electricity bill savings. Finally, it's important for them to demonstrate their commitment to sustainability to their community, so that their actions align with what they may be preaching.

However, there are barriers that need to be addressed as well. These include coordinating across many stakeholders and decision makers, breaking down the general lack of awareness or skepticism of solar technology, and the need to balance other congregation priorities.

This SEIN team found a few approaches to overcome these challenges. Direct outreach to specific BIPOC houses of worship from the partners that have established relationships seemed to be the most effective. Two of the three congregations that signed up for solar during the project period came from existing relationships with Green the Church and the third from IPL. A trusted partner may answer questions and offer validation to a house of worship that's learning about solar for the first time.

A state government net-metering policy change in California, known as Net Billing Tariff or NEM 3.0, created urgency to contract solar projects before the policy reduced the value of net-metered solar generation. This prompted the partners to organize the potentially interested houses of worship to go through the process as a cohort. The teaming process with persistent follow-up from the partners proved to be an effective strategy and is worth considering for future efforts. Learn more about the Net Billing Tariff on the California Public Utilities Commission website.

In total, during this pilot initiative:

  • Five BIPOC-led houses of worship submitted electrical bills and requested solar proposals.
  • Three of the five houses of worship successfully signed solar financing agreements, in the form of power purchase agreements and solar loans from RE-volv and have construction underway.
  • The initiative has deployed $120,000 to build three community-based clean energy projects.

What's Next?

One of the goals of RE-volv and its partners, and many community-based solar lenders, is to demonstrate that solar projects in BIPOC and low- to moderate-income communities are reliable investments and to encourage lenders to make solar financing more equitable and accessible for nonprofit organizations.

With support from the IRA and the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, financing may become more readily available for community-based solar projects in historically excluded communities. As the LBNL analysis suggests, each one of these projects has the potential to plant a seed with beneficial ripple effects, increasing solar adoption in communities that have historically been left out of the clean energy transition.

Download the full report from the RE-volv website.

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