Sandy Springs Church First in Georgia to Go Solar

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(APN) SANDY SPRINGS — The Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation (NWUUC) in Sandy Springs recently held an open house on Sunday, October 10, 2010, for Metro Atlanta residents to come and learn about how the church is transitioning to one hundred percent solar power and is reducing its carbon footprint.

In January 2009, the church installed 20 solar panels on the south roof of its sanctuary, in its effort to completely remove itself from the coal power grid. According to Georgia Interfaith Power and Light (GIPL), the congregation is the first in Georgia to have installed solar panels on its roof.

The Sandy Springs UUC is part of an international grassroots campaign, www.350.org, to mobilize a worldwide social movement to create clean, renewable, and moral solutions to the global warming crisis.

One of the main barriers to switching more buildings to solar power is the cost of obtaining and installing solar panels, the up-front costs of which are prohibitive.

However, the NWUUC raised the money for the solar panels–at a cost of 1,500 dollars per panel, or 30,000 dollars total–from its own congregation. They estimate a 18 percent saving on their energy bills with the solar panels so far. They plan to eventually install 80 more solar panels which will meet most of their energy needs.

“All the money to purchase the 20 solar panels came from the congregation,” David Zenner, Congregational President said. “We asked for donations of as little as one-fourth of a panel, up to a full panel. Some were only able to contribute a few hundred [dollars] while others gave as many as three full panels or 4,500 dollars.”

The solar panels did lead to some controversy, when the church discovered that some old pine trees on the property were blocking the sun and needed to be cut down.

One member of the congregation for over 50 years, Hugh Fordyce, 82, threatened at one point to chain himself to one of the trees.

In order to allow enough sunshine on the new solar panels, four large pines and two hardwood trees needed to be cut down, but Fordyce was opposed.

“From my perspective, to destroy the trees in order to provide more sunlight for solar panels seemed a poor trade-off,” Fordyce told Atlanta Progressive News. “The trees provide cooling; they take in carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.”

Fordyce left the congregation for three months but then returned. “One of our Unitarian principles emphasizes the need to live in harmony with the Earth. I felt as though we would be destroying something sacred by cutting down the trees.”

“One of the other principles of my Unitarian Universalist faith is to respect the worth and dignity of every person. I guess that means that I should love them, even though I think they may be short-sighted,” he said, adding that he had not changed his mind about the trees.

Although the trees were cut down, the congregation made a donation to an arborists organization in Sandy Springs to plant more, new trees elsewhere.

Meanwhile, NWUUC received a power audit from GIPL, which helps all communities of faith save precious energy through energy efficiency and energy conservation. Since 2003, GIPL’s interfaith ministry has been developing the connection between ecology and faith. Their goal is to help people of faith recognize and fulfill their responsibility for the stewardship of creation.

If everybody in the US was as aware of their energy usage as the folks at the NWUUC, the nation’s carbon footprint would be much lower than the current 390 parts per million (PPM) of carbon dioxide. Leading scientists say 350 PPM is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and is the number humanity needs to return to avoid a runaway climate change.

Fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas emit carbon dioxide when burned. Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas causing global warming. We rely on the combustion of these fossil fuels, when we turn on the lights, cook food, heat and cool our homes, use appliances, and drive our cars.

Getting back to 350 PPM means changing the way many people live and taking on the powerful fossil fuel industry. It means building solar stations instead of coal plants, wind turbines instead of nuclear plants, planting trees instead of clear-cutting rainforests, increasing efficiency, and decreasing waste.

Some of the NWUUC’s other projects include installing energy efficient compact florescent lights; placing cards above all light switches to remind people to turn off lights when leaving; replacing old appliances with energy efficient appliances; sealing air leaks on the windows; recycling paper, glass, aluminum, and plastic products; and installing rain barrels at the down spouts to water the recently planted hemlock trees on the property.

Bob Fletcher supervises selling Compact Florescent Light (CFL) bulbs to the congregation and has replaced all the 60-watt incandescent bulb at NWUCC with 13 watt CFL. Each CFL, over the expected 10,000 hour life of the bulbs, will save 470 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Bulbs with the Energy Star label have been certified for efficiency.

The typical American household generates 55,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually, the typical German household contributes 27,000, and the average Swedish household contribution is only 15,000, according to David Gershon in his book, Low Carbon Diet.

The bigger picture to reducing carbon dioxide pollution is to shift from using fossil fuels to using renewable energy like solar, wind, small hydro, and biomass. Currently the lobbying power of the big fossil fuel corporations has significant influence over the decision making of elected officials in state legislatures and US Congress.

Again, one of the biggest obstacles for businesses and organizations to switch to solar energy is the initial cost of obtaining and installing the panels. A power purchase agreement (PPA) allows a business to obtain the panels for no up-front cost from a solar installation company which finances the panels, as previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News; but PPAs are not currently legal in the State of Georgia.

Moreover, the Georgia Territorial Electric Service Act of 1973 states that individuals, organizations, and businesses with solar panels can only sell their energy to Georgia Power. This Act gives Georgia Power a monopoly over the purchase of energy.

Georgia Power has lobbied for favorable public policies at the Public Service Commission (PSC) and State Legislature. Their successful lobbying has made it difficult for the state’s residents to transition to solar power. On the national level, Georgia Power’s parent company, Southern Company, employed 63 lobbyists to fight the federal clean energy bill, APN previously reported.

Another obstacle to meaningful change may also be the cross-pollination between polluters and environmental organizations in Georgia.

That is, corporate polluters’ financial influence extends not only to PSC and State Legislature but also to the boards of environmental groups.

The Georgia Conservancy, for example, has AGL Resources and Southern Company on their Board of Trustees.

(END/2010)

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