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August 28, 2014

Labor of Love: How My WV Small Town Launched a Game-Changing New Model to Go Solar

Mary Anne at her solar church

This week, my small town in West Virginia cut the ribbon on a solar project that isn't just the largest crowd-funded solar project in the state, but also launches a new model making it possible for any WV community organization to go solar. On a perfect sunny day, 100 elementary school students and dozens of community members joined my husband, Than Hitt, and my daughter Hazel, who cut the ribbon for a 60-panel solar system at the historic Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church. It was an unforgettable day that crystalized all our hopes for the future of West Virginia, and exemplified the power of regular people to change the world.

The genius of this project was that the church went solar for just $1, thanks to over 100 community members who contributed - but they donated their water heaters, not their dollars. Maryland-based Mosaic Power pays homeowners $100 per year to have smart meters installed on their home water heaters that save energy and, in the aggregate, operate as a safe, efficient mini-power plant. These community members are each donating their $100 per year to the church solar project, collectively raising enough money to pay for the solar system. The financing model was developed by our brilliant friend Dan Conant and his company Solar Holler, and now that we have proof of concept in Shepherdstown, he's taking it statewide.

Than Hitt at the solar churchThe church is going to generate nearly half of its electricity from the sun, reducing pollution, saving money, and living out the congregation's commitment to caring for the Earth. I'm a member of this remarkable church, where we've spent many a Sunday morning lamenting the destruction polluting energy development has wreaked on our state, from mountaintop removal mining to the coal chemical spill in Charleston earlier this year.

By going solar, we’re not only reducing our reliance on dirty energy, but we've demonstrated a model that other WV nonprofits are lining up to replicate. Making this project work was a labor of love three years in the making, dating all the way back to 2011 when my family was the first in our historic town to go solar, which helped get the community talking about how we could do more. Take it from me, when you go solar, it's like creating ripples in a pond - you may set into motion changes bigger than you ever imagined.

Now that we've figured out the details of this community-supported solar financing model, Solar Holler already has two more projects on deck in West Virginia communities, and those are sure to be followed by many more. And the project is being noticed around the country, with press coverage including USA Today, the Associated Press, and this great piece by Think Progress. I'm so proud of my husband, who led this project for the church, and so proud of our community.

At the ribbon cutting, our pastor Randall Tremba offered powerful remarks that have stayed with me, because he beautifully captured why the church undertook this groundbreaking project, and what it means for the community and the nation. I'd like to close the post with an excerpt from his remarks:

I am the pastor of SPC, which now stands for: Solar Presbyterian Church.

These solar panels symbolically and actually reconnect this church to an old and long Presbyterian tradition of respect, reverence and connectedness for and with Mother Earth - a reverence sadly forsaken several hundred years ago. We are happy to reconnect to Mother Earth.

That old reverence is reflected in a poem composed by St. Francis in 13th century and addressed to Mother Earth, Sister Water, Brother Wind, and Sister Moon. But it begins this way:
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; you give light through him.
He is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, Brother Sun bears your likeness.

This project will make a lot of Presbyterians, living and dead, very happy. Let me explain by taking you back through time a ways.

The Fellowship Hall is attached to the Meeting House out front which was built in 1836 by a community of Presbyterians first organized on the banks of the Potomac in 1743, which was 33 years before there was a United States of America.

These solar panels would make our 18th century founding Presbyterians very happy for, in case you didn't know, most of them were Scots and the Scots like nothing more than saving a penny. Think Andrew Mellon.

Scots love saving a penny and these panels will save us many of those.

As much as frugality, the Scots also love technological inventions. Think Alexander Graham Bell.

As much as inventions, the Scots also love the natural world and work to keep it whole and holy. Think John Muir, son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister. Love of nature is in SPC's DNA....As happy as this project makes Presbyterians, I hope it makes our civic community just as happy and proud. For this project could not have happened without ecumenical and communal support.

On behalf of SPC, I thank Than Hitt and Dan Conant along with their blue-ribbon committee who successfully guided this project through thick and thin, over humps and bumps, on sunny days and cloudy days, and around twists and turns more than once. But I also thank the citizens of this community. For it takes many hands to make light work and work light.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign director

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