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Churches go green

Churches, mosques, and synagogues look for ways to make their buildings more energy efficient, both to heed ethical imperatives against waste, and also to save money.

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In 2000, other churches and synagogues joined the effort with the formation of California Interfaith Power & Light. Congregation Shir Hadash of Los Gatos became the first synagogue in the state to install solar panels, spurred, says Rabbi Melanie Aron, by the Jewish teaching of Tikkun Olam about repairing the earth.

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CIPL's Youth Lightbulb Program enables faith youth groups to raise money by selling energy-efficient bulbs. But the renewable energy project in the state collapsed. With California's electricity crisis two years ago, Bingham says, green energy companies were forced out of the market.

As other states deregulated, however, interest in the program caught on. MacAusland formed MIP&L, and similar nonprofits are developing in New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina, Maine, Georgia, Tennessee, and Michigan. With the growing enthusiasm, a foundation is funding CIPL to act as an umbrella group supporting interfaith efforts nationwide.

But not everyone shares that enthusiasm. Some in the pews remain unconvinced that global warming results from human activity, and see this as part of a liberal agenda. Others resist discussing the environment in a theological context.

Grace Church in North Attleborough, Mass., found the effort challenging. "The majority of the church was very much on board with the idea," says the Rev. Mary- alice Sullivan, but some members were not, "and we even lost a few parishioners. But we felt it was a call to the gospel and to meet the needs of the community."

Along with upgrading an old, inadequate heating system, the church wanted to renovate a connected building to start a middle school for children at risk. MIP&L and Conservation Services Group (CSG), the firm contracted to provide technical services, helped them realize their dream.

They have eight new boilers with zoned heating for church and school (which opened in September); their monthly utility bill has dropped from $4,000 to $2,400, although building use has gone up. Another church in the diocese loaned them $300,000 for the heating system.

Because systems are often old and inefficient, says Mark Dyen, CSG vice president, churches can save much more on bills by putting in new systems - from 30 to 50 percent - than can households.

Going for the gold in green building

One congregation has taken to heart the ambitious idea of "green building." St. Stephen's Cathedral, a historic landmark in downtown Harrisburg, Pa., is undergoing a major renovation that could win it a "gold" rating from the US Green Building Council of the building industry.

That rating in the LEED program (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) "would make us the first historic renovation project ever to get the designation," says the Rev. Malcolm McDowell, dean of St. Stephen's.

The congregation already had an environmental stewardship committee when it decided to renovate church buildings and a four-story parking garage to house its overflowing K-8 school. With the help of Interfaith Power & Light of Pennsylvania (IP&L), they held many potluck dinners to discuss how green they wanted to go.

"We were able to see it made theological, economical, and environmental sense," says John Dernbach, an environmental lawyer who is committee chair.

Along with turning the garage into a school building, the project upgrades and integrates the entire cathedral complex with a glass atrium and hallway.

IP&L receives funding from the Heinz Endowments, and can offer free audits, technical services, and help in upgrades. It also provides churches with a curriculum to explore connections between faith, religious spaces, and the environment. St. Stephen's benefited from $30,000 of IP&L planning and technical services.

Churches have lagged far behind commercial and government entities in green building because it requires a lot of costly planning, which St. Stephen's couldn't have done without IP&L's help. They hope to finish the project by the fall.

Not everyone needs to be that ambitious to have an impact, says Scot Horst, IP&L director. "We tend not to focus on global warming - it's such a big issue. But churches have a tool right under their noses that allows you to do what you can right now - your own building."