The Shepherdstown Presbyterians meet in a circa-1836 brick building that sits just across the street from the town’s post office- about two blocks from the main street.
A few years ago the growing congregation put on an addition that houses modern meeting and gathering rooms. Soon, the roof of this addition will be topped with solar panels thanks to the newly formed nonprofit organization Solar Holler.
After working on solar initiatives in several other east coast states, Dan Conant wanted to come back to Shepherdstown where he was born and raised, so he founded Solar Holler.
“And (I) really wanted to use solar as a way to diversify our state’s economy and it’s just always been really hard, there’s been lots of challenges put in the way and it wasn’t easy to make the business case right away,” Conant said. “So we needed to develop innovative methods to making solar affordable for these groups.”
Helping Non-Profits Save Energy Costs
Conant says there are federal tax incentives for installing solar system on buildings, but nonprofit organizations, like churches, are not able to take advantage of these incentives because they don’t pay any taxes to begin with.
So that often leaves nonprofits scrambling for money by collecting donations and applying for grants when they want to install something like the $60,000 system that will go on the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church.
“Instead we’ve taken out a loan to cover the cost of the system and then that loan is paid back over the next five years when individual families and businesses around Shepherdstown install little remote control devices on their home or business water tanks,” Conant said.
120 people have agreed to have the boxes installed on their electric water tanks. The boxes constantly measure electric demand and adjust the energy use of the water heaters accordingly.
The boxes belong to Mosaic Power, a Maryland company that pays property owners willing to participate. The supporters of the Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church project have agreed to give that payment to the church to pay back the loan over a five year period.
“About 40 percent of the church’s power would be coming from the solar panels on the roof here,” Than Hitt, a church member who serves on the solar committee, said.
“And that’s going to be a cost savings to the church moving forward,” Hitt said. “We know energy prices are increasing and this really is about a long term plan for financial stewardship.”
Expanding Across the State
The Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church project is the first of what Conant hopes will be many projects across West Virginia that will allow nonprofits and governments to lower their electric bills by installing solar panels.
He said a number of other organizations, including libraries, schools and affordable housing groups, have approached Solar Holler asking for help.
“We wanted to make a program that was not just going to work in Shepherdstown or in other fairly well-to-do places across the state; we wanted to make a system that could work for any community, any county, and any organization in West Virginia so long as they’ve got community support,” Conant said.
Hoping to Offset the 'Brain Drain'
And Conant has a larger goal beyond giving nonprofits a way to save on energy costs. He hopes Solar Holler will help create jobs- the kind that young adults like him will be willing to do so they can stay in West Virginia.
“We can’t keep holding on to the jobs of the 1950’s and 60’s and thinking that’s the way it’s always going to be,” Conant said.
Conant wants to see jobs in West Virginia that include creative communities building new things. He mentions examples like solar power, software design and high tech industries.
“Its things that will stop the brain drain and actually keep people at home,” he said.
Conant said West Virginia has a lot to offer including amazing mountains, rafting and beauty.
“But we need to make it possible for people to actually make a living here and do it in a way that isn’t just punching a clock but is actually a joy to be a part of every single day,” he said.
The Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church expects to have its solar panels installed sometime in August. In the meantime, Conant is busy talking to other organizations to determine what the next big project will be.