The First Baptist Church in Mount Olive, North Carolina is a picturesque small town church with deep roots. The church was founded in 1863, the same year Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and Henry Ford was born. Along with their 154-year legacy, the church played an important role in another unique piece of history. Nestled among cultivated fields just outside of town, First Baptist owns the land where the first two solar farms in Wayne County were built.
Toward the end of the Great Recession, Birdseye Renewable Energy approached First Baptist with an offer. They wanted to lease land from the church for solar development, something the church hadn’t even considered at the time.
The church’s trustees put together a committee and learned everything they could about Birdseye Renewables and solar energy in general. They decided to recommend that the congregation accept Birdseye’s proposal, and the entire church body voted 97.5 percent in favor.
Angelo San Fratello, the president of trustees at First Baptist, said “We were operating in the red, and this pulled God's house out of the red.”
After a failed attempt to get permission from the state government to build a larger farm, the church and Birdseye settled on two smaller farms at 38 and 39 acres each. Even though they are smaller than originally intended, the farms produce enough energy to power nearly every single home in Mount Olive.
First Baptist’s solar farms were an immediate hit. The installation owner, Strata Solar, pays the church over 400 percent more in rent payments than they were making from traditional farming leases, securing much-needed financial stability coming out of the recession. The construction portion of the project employed many in Wayne County, and the solar farms will continue to contribute to the local tax base until they are decommissioned in 2044.
Dr. Dennis Atwood, First Baptist’s pastor, has high hopes for the church’s solar future. He said that he thinks First Baptist will serve as a model for other churches and institutions, in the United States and abroad. In fact, the solar farms are an integral part of the church’s mission and ministry. They provide much-needed funding and serve as inspiration for future mission work.
The church constantly receives calls and emails from local neighbors and people across eastern North Carolina looking into solar development themselves.
“Still today, people are calling me wanting to know how to set up solar farms,” said San Fratello.
San Fratello said that the church wants to show others how beneficial solar energy has been for them, and they expand their own solar holdings as well. Currently, Wayne County has hit the legal maximum for solar installations. According to San Fratello, the moment the state government allows for more solar in Wayne County, First Baptist will be the first to expand.