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The Interfaith Solar Campaign: How churches in Oregon are going green


The Oregon Interfaith Solar Campaign is spreading the message of environmental conservation through solar power use in local churches.

One such church is Molalla United Methodist Church, where Rev. Jon Hughes, a quarter-time pastor, noticed in 2021 that the church had a perfect location for solar panels. With an unobstructed roof and limited trees, Hughes presented the idea to the administrative council and ran the numbers. The initiative was briefly put on hold to wait for the Inflation Reduction Act for a potential price reduction. A 30% rebate and a potential grant from the Cascadia District Extension Society has helped to reduce costs even more.

The church signed the contract this past Sunday, and the installation is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The church's one-acre property is also being considered for a solar farm to help low-income residents in their community. Having solar panels will allow the church to welcome more community groups by reducing electricity costs, which means more outreach for the church's community meal program and other events. Hughes hopes that having a large solar array on their roof will be akin to telling the community.

"We care about the environment," Hughes said

He hopes those who share the same commitment will come back and check it out once the panels are installed.

Molalla is just one of many churches and faith communities retired Rev. John Pitney has been working with through the Oregon Interfaith Solar Campaign to be good stewards of creation through responsible and sustainable energy practices.

Pitney said his journey towards solar energy and its role in spreading awareness about environmental issues comes from his years growing up on a farm in western Oregon, where he learned how to make the most of what was available. He then started working with churches on various Earthcare initiatives, which lead him to write songs to start conversations about caring for the earth together. Pitney said that the starting point for the Interfaith Solar Campaign was when the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" was released. The film inspired Pitney and his wife, Rev. Debbie Pitney, (then) senior pastor at First United Methodist in Eugene, to organize viewings and discussions of the film with the community.

The congregation's decision to undertake a major building upgrade, including the need to change the heating system, led to a solar system being installed in 2010. This became one of the first community-funded solar projects in Oregon. Since then, other congregations have followed suit, with people calling Pitney to find out how to go about it. With more churches coming forward, Pitney and co-coordinator Lou Stagnitto and his team of volunteers established the Interfaith Solar Campaign to promote solar energy across denominations and networks of synagogues and churches.

"It's not just about solar panels, but it's about taking care of the earth and making a difference in the world. All creation is just waiting for humanity to wake up and join in with life." Pitney said.

Through the campaign, the team has organized funding strategies for faith communities, with incentives available from the Energy Trust of Oregon, the state of Oregon, and the federal government. The federal incentive allows nonprofits such as churches to receive cash covering 30% of the total cost of their solar installation. The team has also partnered with organizations such as Collective Sun, which has provided financial backing to the Interfaith Solar Campaign. The Presbyterian Church has its own Green Loan Fund, and the Oregon-Idaho Conference district extension societies have grants and loans available for congregations.

The campaign aims to offer a lease option for congregations to get solar installed and to work out a funding package so that they are paying the same or less on a monthly basis than what they are paying for power now. The team is also working with installers to provide individual members from those congregations access to the same installer to put solar on their own homes. The third component of the campaign involves encouraging congregations to sign up for community solar. Pitney said that the campaign's focus is to create a movement in which churches become beacons of hope in their communities by putting solar panels on their roofs.

The urgency for people to engage in alternative ways of living and powering their lives has never been greater, said Pitney. With heightened awareness about wildfires and hurricanes and how they affect the most endangered creatures and marginalized people, people of faith need to join in and do their part, he said. 

Pitney added that it's been a joy to work with different congregations and leaders across the state and that the Interfaith Solar Campaign is expanding. Pitney said that they're starting to work with the Presbyteries in Oregon and the United Church of Christ. The campaign is in various stages of conversations with a dozen churches in the Oregon-Idaho Conference. Pitney would also like to give credit to Open Door Churches of Salem-Keizer, which did install solar panels, as well as First UMC of Portland whose roof didn't work for solar, but did raise more than $30,000 to support a solar installation on the Warm Springs Reservation. 

To learn more about the Interfaith Solar Campaign contact John Pitney pitneycompost@gmail.com or Lou Stagnitto at strategicsolarguy@gmail.com.