Solar Power with a Social Purpose: Installing Solar Panels at St. Charles Church in Cully

Everyone deserves access to the solar energy movement that is sweeping across rooftops in Portland and nation-wide; however, this movement disproportionately benefits white neighborhoods, according to a recent study from Tufts University and University of California, Berkeley.

That is why Verde, in collaboration with the Cully community, Living Cully Partners, St. Charles Church, and Pacific Corps BlueSky Solar, is developing clean energy investments in Cully and tying these investments to social and environmental justice.

The new 78kW solar array atop St. Charles Church models that solar panels can do more than move us away from the extractive fossil fuel economy, they can build resilient communities.

St. Charles Borromeo Parish is a Catholic parish located in Cully and home to a diverse congregation of 350 families. Father Elwin Schwab dreamed of using their ideal flat roof for combating climate change for over a decade. He approached Verde to partner in the project in 2017.

At the time, Verde was working with the Living Cully Partners to develop the Living Cully Community Energy Plan (The Plan), a community effort to redress local disparities (e.g., housing, economic opportunity, climate disaster resilience) through energy conservation and renewable energy generation projects. Verde incorporated the St. Charles Solar array into The Plan as one of six pilots and identified ways the project would be leveraged for community benefit.

The installation finalized in January 2019, and this year the solar array will save the parish an estimated in $7481 in electric utility bills, money that will be directly reinvested in the community.

“St. Charles is embedded in the neighborhood and very committed to improving the lives of people in our neighborhood, particularly people of color and people of lesser means,” said Leif Kehrwald, pastoral administrator at St. Charles, in an interview with Catholic Sentinel. “When we save money on our power bill, that money can be immediately redirected toward our efforts to work with people in the neighborhood.”

The solar array also comes with battery storage that can provide power during a city or region-wide outage. As a well-known community hub, the church is equipped with the solar panels and battery storage to support community needs in the case of an emergency.

The project brought other new opportunities engaging low-income, people of color communities in the environmental education and green workforce opportunities. Verde launched a Youth Solar Education curriculum in Fall 2018, another pilot project outlined in the Living Cully Community Energy Plan. Neighborhood students visited the solar site at St. Charles to meet with key staff and interview them about the project and STEM career pathways.

Additionally, Verde Builds served as the general contractor for the project. One of Verde’s growing social enterprises programs, Verde Builds seeks to contract with minority-owned and women-owned businesses and provide workforce development opportunities for people who come from low-income, people-of-color communities. Verde provided 100 hours of workforce support assistance with material handling and system installation for a young, Latino male over the course of this project.

Thanks to Pacific Corps BlueSky Solar for making this project possible! With the support of the community, partners, and funders, Verde will continue to ensure that low-income communities and communities of color like Cully have access to the green energy revolution.


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