The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia

Oak Ridge churches harness ‘God's gift of sunshine’

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Solar panels are easy to attach without roof penetration to properly prepared metal roof with standing seams.This view shows the main sanctuary from the side building that hosts Oak Ridge Faith Lutheran Church’s solar panels.  Ben Pounds/Hellbender Press

How two East Tennessee churches went solar, and can help your congregation do it, too

OAK RIDGE — On two church roofs on the same road in this small town that helped harvest the atom, panels catch the sun’s rays for electric power.

Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church at 1500 Oak Ridge Turnpike and Faith Lutheran Church at 1300 Oak Ridge Turnpike added solar energy at different times through different companies using different federal incentives. ORUUC added its panels in 2015; Faith Lutheran added them in March 2022. Members of both churches involved in the solar projects spoke to both the challenges involved and the benefits. They said their churches benefited both financially and spoke of the benefits to the planet.

“I really hope it works well for us as well as for the environment,” said George Smith, associate pastor at Faith Lutheran. “I’m fond of thinking that we’re turning God’s gift of sunshine into a gift of cash for ministry.”

“I do best when I can see something concrete to do that can make a difference and that’s what that was,” said Hal Hoyt, who spearheaded ORUUC’s project for his congregation’s panels.

Ted Jackson, president of Green Interfaith Network, Inc. wrote in an email to Hellbender Press that he wasn’t familiar with many churches using alternative energy in East Tennessee at present, and explained the reasons why it wasn’t common.

“The high costs of initial investment combined with TVA’s curtailment of paying for power returned to the grid and other physical plant/location, social (COVID), and financial pressures are factors impeding acceptance of alternative energy technologies,” Jackson said. He said his organization promoted energy-conservation measures before considering alternative energy.

“I can tell you why churches don’t do it. They don’t have the money,” Hoyt said regarding the upfront cost. “There’s not a church in town that has excess funds in the operating budget for this.” While he said it has yielded a 6 percent return on investment yearly, he said he had to do special fundraising for the upfront cost.

ORUUC’s 2015 solar array dates to an unusual time for the congregation involving a new building. While the idea was popular with many people in the church, Hoyt in an interview took credit for it becoming a reality.

“My experience is that for any project like this you need a champion, one person that is willing to feel passionate about it and shepherd it through, and I was that champion for this particular project. Otherwise, committees talk about doing things like that and they just kind of founder around,” Hoyt said.

ORUUC got its charter in 1950, but its current building is less than a decade old. The church voted to sell its old location, which was also on Oak Ridge Turnpike next to Kroger, which anchors a shopping center.

Hoyt said the congregation discussed at town hall meetings new features it might add to a new building. Solar panels were a popular idea.

Unlike many other religious groups, the Unitarian Universalist Association, of which ORUUC is a part, eschews formal creeds. The UUA stresses among other principles, however, that “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” a principle that has led to environmental commitments by many congregations.

The money from Kroger paid for new land and a new building, Hoyt said. But after the new building went up, it was up to Hoyt and the church’s endowment fund to raise the funds for the solar array attached to the city grid. The system cost about $67,000, Hoyt said with $25,000 from an endowment fund to kick it off. About $57,000 from private donations topped the difference. The church worked with Green Earth Solar, a company which Hoyt said no longer exists. He said in general, due to tariffs, larger companies have replaced smaller ones.

He said because of the system’s connection to the grid, TVA paid the church 4 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 10 years. The utility paid the going rate for the next 10 years. Now, he said, TVA doesn’t buy back power from new programs.

He said the church initially planned a 20-kilowatt system generating about 24,000 kilowatt hours per year, but the church was able within a year to double the system to a 40 kilowatts.

TVA incentives were gone by the time crews put the panels on Faith Lutheran Church’s roof. But a new incentive from Uncle Sam gave the church the chance it needed: the Direct Pay program from the Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022. Faith Lutheran plans to use it.

The church enlisted the Knoxville solar firm Solar Alliance Southeast to add a 15.3 kilowatt solar array atop its roof in March 2023.  The photovoltaic system will create electricity to cover a portion of what the church needs for worship and community gatherings, according to a news release.

Solar Alliance estimated the solar array of 34 flush-mounted 450-watt modules attached to the roof will create more than 20 megawatt hours of electricity annually.

“From its inception, Oak Ridge has been a leader with respect to energy technology, and our members are well aware of the advantages and limitations of most energy sources,” said Smith in a release. “We have studied the feasibility of using solar panels for some time now, but could not quite justify the cost until we met with Solar Alliance, who proposed an affordable installation. Then when the federal government announced incentives that extended to nonprofits, we were already primed to proceed.”

The inflation reduction act opens incentives previously only accessible to for-profit businesses. In place of the 30% tax break that a for-profit business would receive for adding solar, the church could qualify for a check back from the federal government, after project completion, to cover 30 percent of the cost.

The decision to add renewable energy in this way came after much analysis, committee discussion and prayer organized by lay leader and Church Treasurer William Koch, according to the release.

“I consider this solar panel system to be a starter system, to prove the viability and benefits of solar electric systems. While our congregation voted unanimously to proceed, I heard that there were skeptics coming into the meeting. Our presentation convinced them to vote in favor. However, I hope to add more panels in a few years for bigger savings, taking advantage of the scalability of solar panel systems,” Koch said in the release.

“Electricity has become a growing part of our budget. As a result, we felt that it was something that we had to get under control,” he told Hellbender Press in an interview. “We have a responsibility to use the people’s offerings for the best possible use.

“I don’t have anything against the Oak Ridge electrical department, but I don’t think giving it to them is the best possible use,” he added.

Faith Lutheran added the array working with the city of Oak Ridge through an interconnection permit facilitated by Solar Alliance as part of its engineering and electrical services for the church.

“It is truly an honor to bring our East Tennessee workforce and make sure all the details come together for an organization like Faith Lutheran,” Solar Alliance Account Manager Haley Michael-Lee said.

Koch added, “As the church’s treasurer, I saw that increasing cost of electricity was diverting funds away from other important missions of our church. Solar panels were an attractive option, after considering window films and other energy saving alternatives. We searched and spoke with several firms before finding Solar Alliance. They have been very professional in meeting our wants and needs.”

“This federal support for nonprofits allows a one-time investment to provide savings for decades to come. Just like teaching a man to fish feeds him for a lifetime, access to renewable energy incentives for nonprofits means they can reduce one of their biggest expenses and utilize their savings to further invest across the community,” said Solar Alliance Vice President Harvey Abouelata.

“As we begin our 80th year in Oak Ridge, we expect this project to ease our utility expenses to the point that we can budget more money for ministry within the congregation and to the community,” Smith said.

Faith Lutheran Church hosts and supports several different ministries in addition to weekly worship services. The church has hosted multiple training sessions for prospective foster parents, gathers nonperishable foods to coordinate with another local church food pantry and hosts quilters who supply finished quilts to the Lutheran World Mission. Other mission efforts support free medical care for those in need, safe activities for teens, seminary education and prison outreach.

The church’s senior pastor Chase LeFort spoke of the ethical value of using solar, not just it’s financial value.

“We understand that part of our role in general, not just as the church is to take care of the environment we’ve been given and this is just one of the ways to do it,” he said.

Upcoming workshop

Solar Alliance invites you to a free workshop on solar for nonprofits, on Tuesday, March 28.  The workshop is from 6 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. at Faith Lutheran Church in Oak Ridge at 1300 Oak Ridge Turnpike.

This workshop will cover how Faith Lutheran Church decided to add solar in 2023, with church leaders sharing the ins and outs of how the process has been for them. The workshop will cover the new Direct Pay federal benefit for nonprofits along with some technical and financial background from Solar Alliance Vice President Harvey Abouelata. Also sharing at the workshop will be a representative of the Appalachian Solar Finance Fund (SFF), which is supporting the solar project at Faith Lutheran.  

“We look forward to sharing information about how the Appalachian Solar Finance Fund can provide financial and technical assistance to help Tennessee nonprofits and public institutions go solar,” said Autumn Long, SFF Director in a news release. The SFF will explain its application process for nonprofits and how it aims to support their work in the community.   

For groups that need assistance up front with the expense of energy projects, the nonprofit Pathway Lending will have a representative to explain how its low interest loans work. Additional nonprofits sharing how their work encourages renewable energy in the community include Tennessee Interfaith Power & Light with its Cool Congregations program and Brugmansia Ministries.

“Working to reduce the carbon footprints of our congregations is a way in which people of faith can live by the ‘Golden Rule’ and treat others the way that we wish to be treated,” said Courtney Shea with Tennessee Interfaith Power & Light.

RSVP here. If you would like a one-on-one preliminary solar estimate with your utility bill prior to 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 28, let the Solar Alliance know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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