African American church is first in D.C. to be powered by solar energy

A historic black church that has sat on the same corner in LeDroit Park for 99 years has become the first African American church in the District to rely on renewable solar energy for electrical power.

Florida Avenue Baptist’s installation of 44 solar panels was hailed at a ribbon-cutting Tuesday by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and other government officials as a breakthrough in the black community, where the clean-energy divide mirrors its well-known high-tech digital divide with the white community.

“This is an important first,” said Jackson, whose agency recently started a faith-based initiative to increase clean-energy awareness among religious groups. “They’re saying: We’re going to take the lead in helping African American homes to become energy efficient.”

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Earl D. Trent Jr., said the panels’ installation, by a North Carolina-based company in March, was important not only because the church will save money on its $3,000 monthly electric bill from Pepco but also because it will reduce “dirty” coal-fired energy and enable him to establish a “green ministry” that could awaken churchgoers who know little to nothing about clean energy and its benefits.

African Americans tend to live in older, less energy-efficient homes equipped with older appliances and, therefore, have higher energy bills.

According to “Energy Democracy,” a 2010 report by the Center for Social Inclusion, African Americans spent an average of $1,439 on electric bills in 2008, more than what Latino and Asian Americans spent, and significantly higher than what white Americans paid.

“We want to be a model for green energy,” Trent said in an earlier interview. “I’ve gotten calls from pastors who want to find out how they can do this,” he added, raising his hope that the renewable-energy divide can be bridged.

African American churches have historically led social change in black communities, raising awareness of civil rights in the past and now, possibly, environmental justice, Trent said. Helping to lower coal-energy production, even marginally, at power plants is a symbolic step in a nation where, he said, many black people live near such plants and their smokestacks.

“African Americans have more sources of pollution in their neighborhoods than others,” Jackson said, standing on the roof of the church near Howard University Hospital as the sun beat down. “We have mercury, neurotoxins building up in our bodies . . . mothers pass it to children. We have . . . developmental disorders. All that comes back to this,” she said, pointing to the row of solar panels.

“I think it’s an extraordinary thing,” said Vernice Miller-Travis, vice chair of the Maryland Commission on Environmental Justice and Sustainable Communities. “For me, this is a big story, even if it’s just one church. You know how black churches are. If one pastor does it, the others have to do it because they don’t want to be outdone.”

When ministers inquire about getting panels, they’ll learn that they’ll have to spend green to go green.

At Florida Avenue Baptist, which has 500 members, the cost was $60,000. With prayer, and 12 members of the flock who were willing to invest money in exchange for Solar Renewable Energy Certificates, the cost was overcome.

The certificates are a kind of energy credit that companies such as power plants buy to sidestep government regulations and penalties for producing too much pollution.

The idea to go solar came to Trent through Gilbert Campbell III, a co-owner of Volt Energy, a North Carolina clean-energy company with an office in Washington. Campbell, a Howard University graduate who met Trent years earlier through his father, a pastor, had a proposition.

“I want to share with you the benefits of the church looking at solar,” Campbell recalled saying in December. “You have an opportunity to educate younger students in the church,” he said. “There’s a value associated with that.”

Volt Energy helped Florida Avenue Baptist set up a business, allowing it to make the investment and receive the certificates. The investors recouped $18,000 within 60 days from a federal tax credit that for-profit entities receive for making investments in renewable technology.

Volt Energy also customized a curriculum for the church, teaching energy efficiency, recycling, and the how-tos of using energy-efficient light bulbs and reading energy bills to children.

Last week, Pepco turned on the power generated by the panels.

The church is expected to save 15 percent, about $450, on its monthly bill, Campbell said. More money will probably be saved after an energy audit of the church and the installation of energy-efficient doors, windows and light fixtures, he said.

The church plans to eventually install a monitor outside the sanctuary so that its members can see the amount of energy being produced and the money being saved, Trent said.

“They’re excited,” he said. “They can’t wait to see.”

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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