Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Coming Together to Pray, and Also to Find Reduced-Rate Energy Deals

Like manna from heaven, thousands of dollars in new revenue is raining on a group of congregations here from the unlikeliest of sources: the utility bill.

The windfall arose after 11 churches and a nonprofit youth group got together to solicit reduced-rate bids for electricity — most of it from renewable energy sources — from local suppliers. In the first year of its contract, which ends in May, the group expects combined savings of nearly $100,000.

As the good word has spread, and it gears up to negotiate a second contract, the original group has swelled to 40 members. The bigger alliance plans to exercise even more leverage in the next round of negotiations by requiring bidders to extend the same discounted rate to individual parishioners and members.

And more revenue is on the way: the group is planning to take a cut of those residential savings as a kind of eco-tithe.
With their cavernous sanctuaries, large meeting spaces and multi-use buildings often open day and night, churches, synagogues and other religious spaces are particularly clobbered by utility bills that can run into the thousands of dollars each month. Beyond dollars and cents, many congregations also consider environmental measures such as reducing  greenhouse gas emissions as part of their duty to care for God’s creation.
The Energy Star program, which created a certification system for houses of worship a year and a half ago, calculates that by cutting energy use by at least 10 percent, the nation’s estimated 370,000 religious buildings could save a combined $315 million a year and reduce emissions by the equivalent of taking 240,000 cars off the road.
Many congregations already treat the environment as a fundamental part of their mission. Officials with Interfaith Power & Light, a network of religious institutions with affiliates in 38 states, said members are installing solar panels, undertaking energy-saving retrofits, buying green power, instilling a love for the earth in sermons and lobbying elected officials for clean energy alternatives. ...
[From its founding in 2000 the network has grown] to 14,000 members, with nearly half of them signing on in the last four years.
The next contract will require participants, which now also include synagogues and affiliates like unions and advocacy groups, to either buy renewable energy or commit to energy-efficiency upgrades. For the upgrades, he said, workers from neighborhoods with high unemployment and poverty rates would be hired.
At St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in northwest Washington, an environmental committee was created from the congregation of 3,800 several years ago to come up with energy-saving measures like installing motion sensor lights and purchasing wind power through the local utility.

Still, said Paul J. Barkett, the church’s chief operating officer, St. Columba’s faced monthly energy bills that averaged $8,000, mostly to heat and cool two buildings housing the church, which opens its showers, washers and dryers to about 35 of the community’s homeless people.

St. Columba’s now expects to save up to $12,000 a year after joining the purchasing group. The church operates on an annual budget of $2.4 million....

It is not unusual for businesses, municipalities, schools and other institutions to come together to buy electric power in bulk for a discounted price, said the Retail Energy Supply Association, a trade group. But congregations banding together across denominations — and working into their contract energy efficiency improvements and residential discounts for members — are fairly new, some energy companies said. This is possible in markets like Washington and 16 other states where multiple power suppliers compete for business. In its first year, this approach will result in electric bills that are 15 to 20 percent lower and annual savings that range from a few thousand dollars to $33,000 per institution, according to the DC Project.
Not all congregations are buying green power, which sells for about $1 more per megawatt hour than conventional energy.
by Mireya Navarro
The New York Times www.NYTimes.com
July 30, 2011

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