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1999 NCC News Archives

NCC Program Addresses Titanic-Sized Energy Problems in Churches

February 4, 1999, NEW YORK -- Sligo Adventist School in Takoma Park, Maryland, saves $11,136 annually and prevents 213,909 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, while Augustana Lutheran Church in Chicago saves $1,200 a year and prevents nearly 25,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. Both institutions realized these savings simply by initiating lighting upgrades. Sligo School is investing all the money saved to power its new computer lab.

Such changes are encouraged as part of an innovative "Energy Star Congregations" program sponsored by the Eco-Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches and funded by a $50,000 grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The initiative encourages local congregations to take concrete steps toward making their buildings more energy conserving.

Church is "Titanic" on Energy Conservation

The program is desperately needed, according to experts who perform energy audits on buildings. When it comes to energy efficiency, "if I were to compare the church to a boat, it would be the Titanic," said John Root, Energy Educator for the Center for Energy and Environmental Education, University of Northern Iowa in Dubuque, Iowa. The Eco-Justice Working Group has contracted with the center to serve as a national clearinghouse of information through a toll-free number (800-288-1346).

"Most churches were built 50 to 100 years ago when people thought fossil fuels were unlimited and when utilities were less expensive," Mr. Root explained. "They were built with aesthetics, not energy conservation, in mind." Churches often are built from the worst kinds of materials, contain arching vaults and are poorly insulated.

Yet there are simple, inexpensive steps that churches can take to save energy and cut down on their utility bills, Mr. Root said. What’s more, there are engineering companies throughout the country that will perform the audit, tell churches how to reduce their bills, put up the money for a loan and allow a church to pay back any initial investment through reduced energy bills. All that church leaders and their congregants need is a basic education which dispels a few myths and explains some simple changes that can be made, he said.

One of the first things Mr. Root tells churches to do when he performs their energy audits is to "turn the thermostat down." "Churches everywhere have thermostats up in the 60 to 70 degree range, when many of them are looking at an occupancy rate of maybe five hours a week," he said. "Many people mistakenly believe that the pipe organ needs to be kept that warm, but studies have shown that organs are fine down to 40 degrees."

He said the best bet for churches is to install programmable thermostats, but in any case "the rule of thumb is that 10 percent of their bill will be saved for every 10 degrees they lower the thermostat."

Another important and easily remedied area is lighting. Newer technologies are available such as a special kind of ballast which dims lights according to the daylight being received, along with dimmable fluorescent lights, explained Dr. Job Ebenezer, Director of Environmental Stewardship and Hunger Education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Chicago, and Co-Chair of the NCC’s Eco-Justice Working Group.

"In a church with a school attached, there can be a 50 percent reduction in electricity simply by switching from T-12 fluorescent bulbs to T-8s," Mr. Root said. "A lot of times, churches can cut down on the number of light fixtures." Mr. Root said that outside lighting is another big energy offender in churches and he tries to get congregations to use "photovoltaic" (PV) lights which convert sunlight to electricity.

Mr. Root also listed old refrigerators, coffeepots, and water coolers as energy drains and said that they can all be put on timers. Timers only cost about $10, he added.

Other areas in which churches can conserve, according to Dr. Ebenezer, include using all recycled and environmentally benign materials and to use only 15 percent post-consumer based paper. "Churches are known for producing all kinds of paper, including at the national level and in our publishing companies," he said. "If we could follow Vice President Gore’s leadership in terms of how he has changed federal paper usage, it would make a difference."

Church’s Potential to Save Energy is Great

Although it is mostly uncharted territory, the church’s potential to simultaneously save energy and to influence its members is great.

"If we look at the church’s collective potential, even if only 50 percent of mid-size congregations in urban and suburban congregations take some basic, low-cost measures, we can save 20 percent of the energy we are currently using," said Dr. Ebenezer. He cited examples in the Chicago area where, simply by changing light bulbs, churches have experienced a 33 percent reduction in their electricity bills.

"If 2,000 congregations made simple renovations, it would save about $2.4 million that could be used for mission," Dr. Ebenezer said.

Mr. Root gave another specific example, Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, where putting five drinking fountains on a timer will save the school $615 per year and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 10.73 tons.

Program initiators stress that the Energy Star Congregations is an exciting project because of the influence it will have on congregants as well as the money it will keep in church coffers.

"If the church supports this notion of energy efficiency, it will have an effect on the entire congregation," said Dr. William Stigliani, Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education. "People tend to look up to ministers and priests so if they see these steps taken and see the tangible results, they will take this home with them."

Dr. Stigliani added, "There is tremendous potential for church people to both save dollars and be good stewards of the environment."

"Not only is this a way to get congregations to be energy efficient and save money, but it is also a logical, gentle first step to open up congregations to environmental ministries," said the Rev. Richard Killmer, NCC Environmental Justice Director.

Energy Conservation Program Fits Christian Mission

Church leaders involved in environmental ministries point out that such steps also are in keeping with a Christian church’s mission.

"As churches who claim ourselves to be morally superior, we have an obligation to do this based upon our whole care of creation and sustaining creation for the next generation," said Dr. Ebenezer. Yet to date, "in the area of public policy advocacy around environmental issues, the church has been vocal, but in terms of practical things, we are lagging far behind other institutions," he said.

And this program is only the tip of the iceberg of what churches could do practically to be environmentally responsible and responsive. Dr. Ebenezer cited congregations that are doing creative things with green spaces and gardens on their church grounds. Community Lutheran Church in Stirling, Va., has even taken some of its land and converted it into a wildlife habitat. As a result, a bat that was considered to be almost extinct in Virginia has found a home in that habitat. "This proves there are even opportunities for churches in the whole area of biodiversity," he said.

If this conjures up pictures of "The Peaceable Kingdom" or even Noah’s Ark, all the better. Energy experts and church leaders say that people of faith benefit from making links between the practical and natural worlds and their spiritual and religious understanding.

Mr. Root exemplified this way of thinking when he described photovoltaic lights, which convert sunlight into electricity, as "almost a miracle." He explained that the lights work because a photon knocks loose the one electron "sitting there by itself" in the outer ring. "This intricate process all takes place at an atomic level," he said. "If I were God and wanted to deliver energy to the people earth, would I put it in oil deep in the ground, or deliver it to everybody’s doorstep in the form of sunlight? I would do the latter."

While hoping that congregants will begin to see some of the "divine intervention" evident in energy conservation, Mr. Root hopes to develop a program further which trains pastors to go in the opposite direction. "Pastors tend to have thought about environmental ideas and policies, but do not know the practical steps." He said that classes in how to do energy audits and make a church energy efficient should be part of the seminary curriculum. "Some pastors have 10 to 15 churches throughout their career," he said. "Even if they only implement parts of this as they go, the problem will gradually be solved."

Through the Energy Star program and local efforts, perhaps one by one, congregations can change from sinking "Titanics" into "Noah’s Arks" which help save and protect natural resources for the coming generations.


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