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United States

Renewables a godsent opportunity for religious communities

Electricity market pundits on both sides of the Atlantic have suggested that popular demand for green power could yet create the great market breakthrough for renewables. To judge by developments in the United States, that theory is perhaps not far from becoming a reality. Where religious congregations have the choice, they are signing up for green electricity in the firm belief that stewardship of the world's resources is God's bidding.

A strengthening bond between religion and environmentalism in the United States is spreading the word about green energy, including wind power. Deregulation has been launched in only two states in America so far. But although the trend of religion and green power is still new and relatively modest in size, it looks as if it will grow steadily as more faith-based communities-including Christian, Jewish and Muslim-start viewing stewardship of the earth as part of a higher calling.

More than 2000 congregations in America are already classified as "green congregations," according to the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, which tracks the pro-environment activities of both Christian and Jewish groups in the US. Of those congregations, an increasing number are choosing to buy electricity from renewable energy plant and to adopt energy efficiency for their churches and synagogues. They are also encouraging their members-who number in the many tens of thousands-to follow the same enlightened path in their private lives, by buying green energy at home.

Fairly suddenly this ecumenical movement-which has been sparked by a rising consciousness in environmentalism in faith based communities over the last decade-is starting to grab attention. The Los Angeles Times ran a prominent article in December about the faith in green electricity of the Episcopal Churches of San Francisco, accompanied by a photograph of several priests in the Altamont Pass praying in a wind farm. The magazine of the powerful Sierra Club, America's oldest environmental group, and founded by John Muir, also ran a long feature the same month on the growing eco-religion movement. And a broadcast piece on the Episcopal churches' cutting-edge decisions is in the works in the San Francisco area, says Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest at the high-profile Grace Cathedral, a life-long environmentalist and one of the main forces behind the interest of churches and other religious groupings.

A core value

"It's an exciting issue," agrees Karl Rabago, former deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Energy and energy specialist with the Environmental Defence Fund. Rabago, who now heads an energy team at the engineering and consulting form CH2M Hill near Denver, says the ecumenical trend makes sense for a number of reasons. Faith based communities can aggregate to buy green power relatively easily as they are already a bonded group with, by definition, a common interest. Environmentalism has also become what Rabago calls a "core value" for many Americans, especially those who are altruistic in a conscious way. Buying green electricity is a way of taking action at grass roots level, rather than just supporting, say, a green group that lobbies for change, although he notes that such pressure is crucial too.

Several recent announcements do, indeed, indicate that, in the US at least, the bond between modern day religion and ecology is growing slowly but surely. California electricity supplier Commonwealth Energy Corporation announced a new joint program just a few weeks ago with the North American Coalition on Religion and Ecology (NACRE) to promote green power to more than 30,000 religious and other non-profit groups within California. The "Greensmart Renewable Energy Project" is designed to educate members of NACRE on the benefits of choosing green, says Commonwealth. The coalition is an ecumenical and inter-faith group that promotes environmental stewardship.

More Episcopal churches than ever in the San Francisco area have now committed to buying green energy as an "aggregate." What's more, a good proportion are promising to buy a blend that includes new wind power. As of mid-May, a dozen churches had signed up with the program, known as Episcopal Power & Light. Bingham, one of two key movers in the Episcopal church's interest in renewables, also says it hopes to have signed up 30 congregations by the end of this month. "If you love God, you love Creation," says Bingham, a board member of the Environmental Defence Fund. She is also co-founder of Episcopal Power and Light, the first program of the Regeneration Project, also founded by Bingham and which was established to boost overall green awareness in the church.

Historic opportunity

Episcopal Power and Light had drawn up a leaflet, "A Response to Global Climate Change," designed to encourage churches to aggregate in a green power buyers' group. "Of particular concern at this time is the issue of global climate change," it says. "Thanks, however, to advances in energy efficiency technologies, the deregulation of the electricity industry and the development of renewable resources, Episcopalians now have an historic opportunity to put their faith into action and play an active role in reducing the threat of climate change."

Bingham has high hopes for the future. A woman who went into the priesthood because of her interest in religion and stewardship of the earth, she is not intending to stop with greening the church's electricity use. "After the Episcopal Church becomes a zero emissions church, then we're going to move on to water issues," she states with confidence. "It's a spiritual issue-how do you treat your neighbour? How do you treat your land?" continues Bingham, who most recently preached about environmental stewardship to a congregation of about 1000 at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on Earth Sunday, April 25. "God's purpose for us is to love and to live in harmony with all that God has made. We invite people of all faiths to join with us in cutting greenhouse gas emissions by investing in energy efficiency and by buying renewable energy resources generated from God's gifts, the wind and sun."

In her sermon on Earth Sunday, her message was powerful. "Most of you, I hope, have made the connection between faith and the environment, God and creation. There is no longer any denial that we were called to be stewards of creation. We know that dominion does not mean exploit, but rather care for," she preached. "We have sinned against God in not taking that responsibility seriously." Bingham travels the country drumming up support wherever she can for green faith. She recently ran a workshop at a meeting of the National Council of Churches in Chicago. The council, the main inter-denominational group for Protestant and Eastern orthodox Christian churches in the US, has already taken a stand on global warming, stating that the Kyoto protocol is "an important move towards protecting God's children and God's creation."

One of those that signed up recently is Trinity Episcopal Church, also in San Francisco. "We need to be better stewards of our resources," comments Al Potter, the treasurer. Trinity consumes a relatively large amount of electricity-much of it is used to run its rare church organ, one of only two of its type left in the country and which has 52 sets of pipes. It hopes to reduce its energy bills by about 5% by using "green" rather than "brown" power, largely thanks to rebates for consumers of certified green power products provided by the California Energy Commission.

About a year ago the California Episcopal Diocesan Convention adopted a resolution, put forward again by Bingham, instructing the state's 87 Episcopal churches to buy power from renewables to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The Diocese then negotiated a deal with Green Mountain Energy Resources (GMER), a leading supplier of green energy, whereby each church signing up receives a $250 donation from the power supplier, while each parishioner who switches gets a $20 donation. Interest in the offer grew most recently when Green Mountain announced in late March that its new product, "100% Renewable Power 2.0," which includes 5% new renewables-would be offered at 5% below California Price Exchange pricing. GMER, which set up a stand outside Grace Cathedral on Earth Sunday, now offers a CD-ROM so parishioners can calculate how much they might save through energy efficiency-and how much renewable energy they could buy with the savings. And once 3800 individual parishioners have signed up, GMER says it will erect a new wind turbine thanks exclusively to members of the Episcopal faith.

Pennsylvania too

In Pennsylvania, the only other state that has a deregulated market, the same trend is evident. One of Pennsylvania's three independent suppliers of renewable energy, the Energy Co-operative Association, is already selling green electricity to about 20 faith-based communities in the Philadelphia area, mostly Episcopalian and Quaker churches, estimates the association's Andy Rudin. He assumes that the other suppliers also count faith communities amongst their commercial customers.

"As this builds, it will have a pretty big effect," says Liz Robertson of the Energy Co-ordinating Agency of Philadelphia. She is the local liaison with the Episcopal Diocese and Episcopal Power and Light Diocese. "It's just the beginning of a very large effect." She says more churches in the state are currently looking hard at the possibility of buying electricity that includes a proportion of renewables, so the number of green congregations is expected to increase.

The Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, the Right Rev. Michael Creighton, writes in Episcopal Power and Light's leaflet: "Our stewardship of God's creation involves: 1) personal awareness and a conserving lifestyle in our use of the earth's resources, 2) Church facilities that are upgraded to be more energy efficient, and 3) purchase of power produced in ways that do not damage the environment and which comes from renewable resources."

Spreading too

There are other scattered signs of faith communities' interest in green energy-and more broadly in environmentalism-although the energy trend is almost by definition dispersed. Five churches in Sacramento, California, have installed solar panels, as have a few in Virginia. In addition to the National Council of Churches taking a stand on Kyoto, the Central American Conference of American Rabbis has called on the US Congress to pass the Endangered Species Recovery Act and to halt commercial logging of old-growth redwoods in northern California. And the US Catholic Conference now has an "environmental justice" program.

Not all congregations, though, are expected to jump on board and buy green power any time soon. Many, especially in inner cities, are primarily focusing on saving energy-because they have very little money. Any money saved will then be put back into other, often social, programs, says Rudin, who is also with the Pennsylvania-based Interfaith Coalition on Energy (ICE), which works with Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups to reduce their energy use while practising environmental stewardship. It's office, in Menlo Park in Pennsylvania, is completely powered by photovoltaics, the first grid-tied PV system in the Philadelphia area. "We emphasise turning things off as a goal, making the metres run slower," says Rudin.

The coalition sends out an energy newsletter, Comfort & Light, to more than 4000 congregations in the Philadelphia area and has numerous leaflets on energy use available, ranging from "The Positive Effect of Cool Temperatures on Pipe Organs" to "Energy and the Bible" and "Energy and Environmental Activities for Religious Congregations." ICE has also teamed up with a local small business group to buy aggregated power from the local utility, PECO, which has the highest electric rates in the state. Under the program, churches can get an additional reduction of up to 27% on their electric bills if they sign up with local supplier Connectiv for its basic energy product, in addition to the 8% reduction already being offered by PECO. The emphasis is clearly cost and electricity savings, not getting away from using brown power.

Will it be only congregations in affluent areas who can afford to buy green "Gucci" energy? Rabago believes that an initial focus on conserving energy for environmental reasons is not only good news for the fight against global warming, it is also good for green electricity suppliers. The crucial thing, he says, is to get people to make the link between the electricity they consume and the environment. "It prepares them to be better clean energy customers," he says. "They're making the connection between everyday action and the energy impact." And he predicts that green energy suppliers will subsequently find the door more open when offering their product.

The second creation

This link between religion and greenness is described as the "second creation story" in the recent article in Sierra because of the view that God not only bid humanity to subdue nature, in Genesis, but also to tend it. The article says the movement is gaining momentum because of issues ranging from the social injustice of environmental racism to endangered species and the commercial logging of rare ancient forests.

The "green congregation" movement can be traced to the formation of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, founded in New York in 1993 not long after the Rio environmental summit. "Caring for Creation is a fundamentally religious imperative that transcends denominational differences and partisan politics," said executive director Paul Gorman, who would later put together a key meeting between religious groups and leaders of national environmental groups on how faith can lead to environmental values. Another group, the Evangelical Environmental Network, sent delegates to Washington DC to lobby against legislation that would weaken the Endangered Species Act. There have been some moves by religious groups to recognise environmental values before this decade, such as the call by the Conference of Catholic Bishops for a "new ecological ethic" in 1986. But its members said that Catholic teaching on the issue was still being developed.

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