Posted by: Francis Koster Published: November 25, 2013

Faith and Energy Policy

Faith and Energy Policy

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

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 trade-offs exist, including how we reconcile the risks of supply interruption by other nations with national defense issues,  to creation of life shortening pollution, and social equity concerns about the impact of the rising costs of energy on the less well off. 

We have made some progress.   Since 1970, energy consumption per American citizen has dropped from one dollar of energy costs for every five  dollars of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to one out of every ten in 2012 - a real success story.[1]

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 place on a tax form to take a deduction on, 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 sits 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 be energy conserving 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, there are now 10,000 member congregations active in this program in 40 states. [2]  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, Ms. 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 churches' mission.

Ms. Tuttle reports some wonderful success stories .

The First Presbyterian Church of Asheville has a lovely old sanctuary, constructed in 1890s and renovated in 1951. A traditional "churchy" looking building with bell towers and stained glass window, it has 43 foot tall ceilings. An energy audit done 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 $4,000.00, and first year savings in lighting costs alone were $5,353 - a rate of return of 133% compounded for the life of the lamps! Over the first 5 years, savings are projected to be $26,764.00[3] - all of which can be now placed in furthering the churches mission. The other projects will also pay handsome dividends.

We do not need to keep fighting amongst ourselves. By following the example of the faith community we can identify ways to create win/wins, reduce waste, and increase the amount of 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?

[3] from slides furnished by Susannah Tuttle, M.Div.; Director North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light, personal        telephone conversation July 10, 2013

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Francis P. Koster Ed.D.

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