Churches make saving energy a matter of faith

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 28, 2013

In this article I am going to show one area where some public policy goals peacefully join with faith community ideals.
Energy is such a vital life support that where we get it and how we use it seriously impacts the design of our society. This is an area loaded with ethical and moral choices. All sorts of tradeoffs exist, including how we reconcile the risks of supply interruption by other nations with national defense issues, creation of life shortening pollution and social equity concerns about the impact of rising energy costs on the less well off.
We have made some progress. Since 1970, energy consumption per American citizen has dropped from $1 of energy costs for every $5 of gross domestic product (GDP) to $1 out of every $10 in 2012 — a real success story.
There are two main drivers for this. First is the “price effect” — prices have gone up, so usage has gone down. Second, government regulation has resulted in things like higher mileage-per-gallon cars, more efficient light bulbs and tighter building codes. We still have a significant opportunity to do better.

The part about people using less of something as it gets more expensive is easy to understand. Less clear to many is the role of government regulation in the energy use arena.
Decades ago, a number of national incentives were put in place to encourage energy efficiency. These incentive programs allowed “for-profit” organizations to deduct some or all of the costs of energy conservation investment from their taxes. These programs worked and contributed to the success story.
However, these incentive programs did not help the not-for-profit sector. A not-for-profit like a church, town hall, library or hospital does not pay taxes, so there is no tax deduction, and a large portion of the financial motivator for behavior change goes missing. This leads to huge, expensive waste and is a national missed opportunity.
In this group sit churches — an architectural segment with special challenges like un-insulated stained glass windows, very large spaces used only a few hours a week when compared to a supermarket of the same size and often part-time or volunteer maintenance staff. Often, little knowledge of the possible ways to conserve energy exists in the congregation.
Interfaith Power & Light is a national blessing working to help churches reduce energy expenditures.

Begun in 1998 in California by an Episcopalian priest, the Rev. Sally Bingham, this program now has 10,000 participating congregations in 40 states. Some congregations start by having knowledgeable members teach other members how to do home energy audits and explain the great financial savings that will result. Others form teams, sometimes partnering with local schools, community colleges and universities, and do energy audits of the church property. Both of these efforts have paid off nicely.
In North Carolina, Susannah Tuttle, the director of North Carolina’s Interfaith Power and Light headquartered in Raleigh, reports that discussions within congregation membership about reducing energy, pollution and climate changing gases have the unique ability to let a broad spectrum of membership set aside their differences and work together around the notion that a dollar saved on energy is a dollar that can be redirected toward the church’s mission.
Tuttle reports some wonderful success stories .
First Presbyterian Church of Asheville has a lovely old sanctuary, constructed in the 1890s and renovated in 1951. A traditional “churchy” looking building with bell towers and stained glass windows, it has 43-foot-tall ceilings. An energy audit by congregation members identified six projects with great potential to save money.
The first project was to replace the innards of 60-year-old lights way up high in the sanctuary. Total cost was $4,000, and the first-year savings in lighting costs alone totaled $5,353 — a rate of return of 133 percent compounded for the life of the lamps! Over the first five years, savings are projected to be $26,764 — all of which can now be directed toward furthering the church’s mission. The other projects will also pay handsome dividends.
We do not need to keep fighting among ourselves. By following the faith community’s example, we can identify ways to create win/wins, reduce waste and increase the money available for helping others. We can bring about a positive future. Will you show these examples to members of your congregation, start a similar program and help move our country along?
Dr. Francis Koster lives in Kannapolis. To see the sources of facts used in this article and learn of other successful money- and life-saving programs that can be implemented locally to create a better future for our country, go to