Will the Solar “Contagion” Effect Get Youth Back in Church?

Last week, the U.S. climate movement reached an unprecedented milestone, marking its one millionth solar installation — an accomplishment that took forty years to achieve but will take only 2 years to surpass. In the wake of a unified global climate agreement, Americans are opening up to the idea of solar energy as a way forward for climate solutions, particularly in this burgeoning economy. While America’s move toward solar is a result of lower installation prices and an evolving aesthetic appeal, there is a lesser known cause contributing to the growth. Solar is contagious. Solar is contagious.

A recent study discovered that when a building installs solar panels, it significantly increases the likelihood that neighboring structures will follow suit. What's been called the "contagion effect," a ripple which occurs after solar panels are installed on a building, spreads out from one installation to surrounding homes, businesses and faith facilities. The impact is so great that SolarCity, one of the largest solar panel installation companies in America, created a visual map to demonstrate how this works.

These findings are particularly relevant to churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, often situated in city-centers, acting as a sort of moral epicenter for a neighborhood. Transitioning a faith facility to solar does more than reduce utility costs and dependence on fossil fuels, it sends a clear message to their encircled community that people of faith care about the climate.

A Faith Community's First Steps Toward Solar

But how does a faith facility acquire solar panels in the first place? Rev. Sally Bingham, along with her team at Interfaith Power and Light have taken swift action in securing solar technology for faith communities across America, a movement that has contributed significantly to the outbreak. Often, solar planting encourages surrounding faith leaders to seek other renewable solutions, advancing the spread of renewable discovery.

While some solar panels still require upfront costs, faith leaders are finding innovative ways to achieve their sun-powered dreams. Retired pastor Rev. John LaMotte and his wife Olivia celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary by divesting $10,000 in ExxonMobil stocks from their personal portfolio and reinvesting the funds in a solar project for Black Mountain Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. Having inherited the stock over 25 years ago, the LaMotte family was grateful for the gains it had provided but couldn't foresee maintaining the investment, explaining, "We began to learn what our culture’s dependence on fossil fuels is doing to God’s creation. Our massive burning of coal, oil and gas are trapping the sun’s heat and changing our climate…"

Meanwhile, In Minnesota, Lutheran Church of the Cross readied an empty dirt lot for their own solar installation, one they hope will do more than reduce their energy costs. Creation care committee member, Laura Raedeke explained, "We want this to be a witness to everyone who sees it." Communities like Nisswa hope the "contagion" effect will have a more targeted impact on their surrounding community. Dick Peterson, Nisswa creation care committee member, shared, "There is this phenomenon of young people not showing interest in the church," he continued, "this is an effort to make it clear that the church is interested in the care of the Earth. We only have one, you know."

The steady decline in religious youth attendance has heightened concern for faith leaders with a record number of millennials transitioning away from organized faith according to a study from the Pew Research Center. Solar panels on a faith facility send a clear message to youth that their religious community cares about issues that matter most to them such as climate change.

The Lutheran Church of the Cross and Black Mountain Presbyterian share a love for solar, attracting newcomers and regaining the ‘nones,’ but they also share a means in which they achieve these goals. Both communities maintain strong 'creation care committees,' without, neither project would have come to fruition. A creation care committee is comprised of leaders from within the community who strategize to spark climate discussions among those uncertain about renewable energy and then advocate for change.  

Congregations, while uniform in tradition, are at times divided on the issue of climate and renewables. The “contagion” effect of solar panels is certainly helpful in building support, strategically advocating for their implementation will be the key to success. A powerful creation care committee should take advantage of communication tools and resources that frame the conversation in a way that resonates with a particular community, demonstrating the many benefits of solar energy. Learn more about forming a creation care committee in your faith community with this how-to-guide from Blessed Tomorrow.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. Click here to email Ryan.

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