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Bishop in a Bucket: Southerners Bless Solar Energy

Bishop in a Bucket: Southerners Bless Solar Energy

50 people gathered in the parking lot of Saint Stephens Episcopal Church in Birmingham on a recent Wednesday evening. Early-fall air tinged with a hint of humidity, and those in line spannead from grade school to retirement age. On Wednesdays in the South, Church activities are as normal as clockwork: supper is served, and there are Bible lessons, prayers, songs, etc. The event that was about to take place at Saint Stephens, however, was nothing short of routine.

On the far side of the parking lot, adjacent to the steeply pitched roof of our parish hall, sat a bucket truck with its hydraulic boom resting on the pavement. In the bucket were an operator and Rt. Reverend Glenda Curry, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, as well as Rd. The bishop wore a full-length red-velvet cope and sat with dripping bishops hat, or miter, on her head. As the bucket was lifted skyward, the bishop waved joyfully at the crowd below, then extended her right arm and pointed her index finger toward the large cluster of solar panels that covered the parish roof. Bishop Curry sat above the solar array, armed with holy water, olive branch, pastoral staff, and prayer book. With a nod and remark, the bishop in the bucket sprinkled holy water over the solar panels and blessed them.

Solar panels are a boon in the South. This is especially true for Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana, where a high rate of sunny days makes this geographic region one of the nation's top in terms of clean sunshine production. Nevertheless, despite this advantage, resistance to change, bottom-lines, politics, and indifference have conspired to hinder progress in solar energy. This is a surprise given the rapid cost savings of solar energy for consumers (who doesnt like to save money?) as well as the environmental benefits and our respiratory health. Each solar panel installed offsets some of the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide and particulates created when burning coal and natural gas to produce electricity.

However, there are early signs of solar energy growth in the South. Utility grade solar installations are starting to be installed in states that have been behind the curve such as Alabama. Wells Fargo Bank, Walmart, and Facebook are among a growing number of businesses in Alabama that have installed solar fields or solar arrays to reduce costs and contribute to promoting sanitized and healthy environments.

Georgia, where Southern Company operates, is a notable exception, as Georgia utilities allow affordable solar marketing to residential properties in the South. Homeowners in southern states have yet to embrace solar rooftops at levels comparable to areas such as southwestern U.S. In Alabama, however, the major electric utility, which is also owned by Southern Company, imposes steep financial barriers to discourage residential solar installations. This disparity may change pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center against utility companies that charge excessive fees for residential solar.

In the interim, we may pray that more solar energy projects will be blessed.

James B. McClintock is the Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Lost Antarctica and A Naturalist Goes Fishing are written by him. He has lived in the South for 34 years.

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