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A few Philly-area churches are going solar. They hope new tax incentives make it easier for others.

Until now, houses of worship were creating LLCs or seeking grants to reduce their carbon footprint.

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Green Team chair Joy Baxter (left) and Solar States solar and battery designer Jackson Kusiak at St. Paul’s cemetery maintenance building in Ardmore.
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church Green Team chair Joy Baxter (left) and Solar States solar and battery designer Jackson Kusiak at St. Paul’s cemetery maintenance building in Ardmore.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

About 50 people gathered at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Ardmore for a not-so-typical blessing that they hope will become more commonplace. The group was there Sunday for the blessing and dedication of new solar panels estimated to save them about $74,000 over 30 years.

It’s not a jaw-dropping sum of money, but that’s not why St. Paul’s took on the project.

“Human beings are given this call to tend to the earth and we haven’t been doing a very good job of that for a long, long time,” said St. Paul’s Pastor Laura Tancredi. “It’s important to us as part of living out our faith to try and do that better.”

Green projects such as solar panel installation, however, can come with significant price tags. Installing St. Paul’s panels on three small residential properties at its cemetery cost about $70,000. The bill was paid through a church endowment, a reserve not every house of worship has.

But provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, lauded for the more than $360 billion set aside to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, allow nonprofits to get a direct payment for 30% of eligible costs during tax season for these solar installations. It’s unclear whether St. Paul’s could retroactively benefit, but the incentive could make it financially easier for the small but growing number of churches interested in going solar to reduce their carbon footprint.

A December 2021 survey by Interfaith Power and Light, a coalition of Episcopal churches working to purchase renewable energy, found that 1,250 congregations had installed solar projects across 48 states and Washington, D.C.

Until now, churches on the quest to get federal help for such projects have had to take on complicated financing methods.

Take Noel Smyth, cofounder of Solarize Delco and member of Temple Lutheran Church in Havertown. He created Holy Solar LLC to help his church install the panels with federal help.

Holy Solar raised funds through members of the church, installed the panels August 2021, and created a power purchase agreement that allowed Temple to buy the energy from the LLC.

“The church pays no money up front, sees no change to their operational expenses, and then they own the panels in 10 years,” said Smyth, whose church is offsetting close to 100% of its energy use. At the end of ten years, the LLC donates the panels to the church.

Chuck Marshall, who managed the 48-panel installation at Central Baptist Church in Wayne more than a decade ago, put it simply: “It’s a real contortion to have to go through the LLC route.” Central Baptist is believed to have been the first church in Pennsylvania to install solar panels. It financed the project through a state grant program and a roughly $20,000 loan.

Despite these challenges and only modest savings on their electric bills, projects at other local houses of worship have moved forward. Last month, the Second Baptist Church of Germantown and Congregation Beth Israel of Media moved forward with solar plans that were in place before the Inflation Reduction Act passed. Faith leaders such as Beth Israel’s Associate Rabbi Nathan Martin welcome removing some of the red tape for these installations.

“Hopefully, other faith communities will not be as deterred and they don’t have to go through as much rigmarole to figure it out,” he said.

The finer points of the requirements nonprofits would have to meet to take advantage of all the incentives available for solar installation through the Inflation Reduction Act are yet to be laid out by the IRS, but churches and solar advocates say the 30% direct payment is enough of a lure. Other houses of worship have started to reach out to solar advocates such as Joy Baxter for advice.

Baxter chairs St. Paul’s Green Team and is member of the Clean Energy Co-Op, which funds solar projects at nonprofits and community businesses. She’s bullish on interest surging once the IRS releases more information regarding tax incentives because in her experience, congregations already have the desire and urgency to go green.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, electricity production accounted for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, behind only transportation. Mosques, synagogues, and parishes are ready to do their part in cutting back, Baxter said.

“But like most entities, how much is it going to cost comes up in a church,” Baxter said of projects that would reduce emissions.

Baxter and other advocates are excited about the incentives available to solar projects in low-income communities — eligible for a 10% bonus credit.

All told, the Office of Management and Budget analysis reports investments made by the Inflation Reduction Act to address climate change would place the country “on track to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by about 40 percent below 2005 levels in 2030.”

“It’s going to drive municipalities and all sorts of government institutions to go solar,” said Jackson Kusiak, solar advocate, designer, and community organizer with Philly-based contractor Solar States. “And it’s certainly going to allow a lot of religious institutions to meet their missions of environmental stewardship by making solar a heck of a lot more affordable.”