Green word sweeps churches of America

What started as a good idea is rapidly turning into a major mission for modern day churches of all faiths. More and more are signing up to buy green power as a way of saving the Earth -- and thus mankind -- from the ravages of pollution. This article follows Episcopal Power & Light in the east and west of the US, noting its wind purchases and those of other denominations following the Episcopal lead.

God and green power are increasingly being linked in America as more congregations and denominations are seen to back renewable energy. Next year's annual Episcopalian convention in Denver, Colorado -- which attracts some 15,000 people from across America -- will almost certainly be powered by wind. It will be the first time that any sort of national conference in America has taken such a step. Under the deal being negotiated in early November, Denver Convention Center will agree to buy green power for the event, in July, from Public Service of Colorado's WindSource program. And the extra cost would be borne by the church or by interested convention-goers.

The unprecedented deal, which was being described as "99% likely," has to be approved by state regulators. A decision was expected by the end of last month. In addition a major Episcopal cathedral, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco -- the country's third largest church -- is now buying green electricity from Wind power is included in the mix of renewables electricity GreenMountain offers to consumers.

The cathedral is among almost 30 Episcopal churches in the San Francisco and Oakland area of California that buy green, says Sally Bingham, the environmental minister at Grace and one of the main forces behind the movement. Twenty-eight church facilities -- the physical place of worship -- are now buying green power or are signing up to do so through Episcopal Power & Light (EP&L).

The number of churches buying green has more than doubled since mid-May (Windpower Monthly, June 1999). More than 500 San Francisco area parishioners have so far signed up, and an Episcopalian dormitory at the University of California at Berkeley has also just signed up to buy green electricity, says Bingham, who co-founded EP&L, part of the Regeneration Project. The project is to boost overall green or environmental awareness -- or stewardship of God's creation, as the church describes it.

Order from on high

A year ago the Episcopal Diocesan Convention adopted a resolution instructing its churches to buy green in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Green Mountain Energy Resources, part of Green, agreed to donate $250 to each church that signs up for the program, while each parishioner who switches gets $20. "Stewardship of the earth has always been a part of the church's mission, but not until recently have ministers entered the advocacy arena. The focus has always been on saving souls," Bingham wrote in an opinion piece for the Oakland Tribune on October 7 entitled "Churches should be involved in healing the planet." She continued, "With the new realisation that the earth is the only way to save human life, the church is beginning to make environmental issues a central part of its missionary."

The best laid plans to buy green power, however, do not always work out. In Los Angeles in southern California, 30 Episcopal churches had agreed to buy green electricity as an aggregate from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). The LA churches had expected to get a reduced rate by buying as a collective, through EP&L, as do their counterparts in northern California. But the negotiations fell through a few weeks ago, says Bingham. "Essentially LADWP reneged on their offer to give us an aggregated price,"` she says.

Still, the desire for clean electricity is there. The Episcopalian cathedral in Los Angeles has now agreed to buy green power. The bishop will also ask another 30 churches in the area to go green even without the aggregate price. And to cover the extra cost of green power, they will all try and cut their electricity bills by one quarter by implementing efficiency. Wind power will eventually be part of the mix. Under the municipal utility's green power program, one-fifth of the electricity is to be generated from renewable resources, including new wind plants and geothermal. With 150 Episcopal churches in Los Angeles, America's second largest city, the trend also seems destined to grow as quickly as in San Francisco.

In the east too

Green energy in Pennsylvania is also being seen as a godsent opportunity by Episcopalians, in the forefront of green electricity awareness because of Bingham and Steve MacAusland, who helps run EP&L from Boston. Pennsylvania has the most active retail electricity market so far in the United States under electricity market liberalisation. Bingham and MacAusland recently met with the church's five bishops in the state, which has 414 Episcopal parishes, and have been negotiating on their behalf with power providers.

Requests for Proposals to supply the parishes -- as an aggregate customer -- with green power have been issued and a decision, based on who can offer the best deal, is expected by the end of the year. New York State will be lobbied next. A major Episcopalian drive for renewables is planned for the spring in Manhattan. Three events will be held to showcase green power, including one at the city's Episcopalian cathedral, St John the Divine, the largest cathedral in the world and as large as three American football fields.

EP&L is also targeting every other state in the north eastern US where there is a likelihood of a green power market in the near future. In fact, Bingham and MacAusland expect to be signing up churches for green power in every state in the region -- expect for Vermont -- within about the next year. They are already talking with wind farm developers in New York state, for example, about buying electricity directly from a wind power station, and so cutting out the middleman, says MacAusland.

The word spreads

It is not just Episcopalians who are concerned about the environment and public health. As part of the same trend, "interfaith" groups -- which represent all conventional religious groups -- are starting to take a strong interest in green electricity. A major interfaith group in Pennsylvania is now pushing for action against climate change. The Pennsylvania Council of Churches, backed by the leaders of 25 church bodies in the state, launched the Pennsylvania Interfaith Climate Change Campaign on September 20 to ask congregations and other religious organisations to use less electricity and to buy renewables, to educate others and to lobby politicians and leaders of the consequences and solutions, including ratification of the Kyoto protocol to the UN Convention on Climate Change.

"People of faith can no longer sit by while we destroy God's good earth," says the Reverend Thomas Johnson of the Presbyterian Church (USA). "We must educate, motivate and activate our congregations to ensure that global climate change be halted and then reversed. People of faith have an obligation to act on their religious and spiritual responsibilities and help create the political consensus for our nation and all nations to be good stewards of the earth."

The campaign started with a two day grassroots session designed to train a critical mass of people who can encourage others to act individually and co-operatively against climate change. "The problem of global climate change is destroying people's lives and health, as well as our habitat," said Reverend Paul Westcoat of the United Church of Christ afterwards. "Failure to act would be truly immoral in these circumstances. As the scripture demands of us: Justice, and only justice, you shall follow."

In need of green power

An interfaith group in New Jersey, currently in the throes of pinning down the details of deregulation, is starting to consider renewable energy. But so far the new market set-up is not conducive to a green retail market. "We're being offered the option of buying cheaper power and ruining our health," says the Reverend Skip Vilas, a priest at St Paul's Episcopal Church in Chatam in central New Jersey, ruefully. Air quality is a major concern on the east coast, he notes, and asthma rates are soaring, especially among poor people. The interfaith coalition, Partners for Environmental Quality, is, however, already in the process of working out how to fund and build a structure so its affiliates can buy green power as an aggregate.

The plan is to test the idea among the 200 congregations in Morris County, where St Paul's is based. That is, if green marketers enter the New Jersey market. So far, Green Mountain has announced that it will not sell electricity there because of the unfavourable market rules. The impetus, he says, initially came when a study on global warming -- which included information on health impacts -- was issued two years ago by the National Council of Churches, the inter-denominational co-operative body based in New York. Then it was Sally Bingham who pushed for using deregulation as a focus. "If we are able to adequately fund a co-operative, and buy and distribute the energy, we'll do it," says Vilas, who is a co-founder of the Episcopal Environmental Network with Bingham.

Out west

In the San Francisco area, too, other faiths are following the Episcopalian lead towards green power. The Northern California Inter-religious Conference -- the region's representative of the National Council of Churches -- was to send out a newsletter by the end of November asking its members -- 1000 congregations, denominations and individuals from all faiths -- to use renewable electricity and practice energy efficiency. The coalition, whose affiliates range from Christian and Jewish to Buddhist communities, will use EP&L's brochure on green electricity and global climate change. That single plea, for stewardship of God's earth by using environmentally friendly electricity, targets many thousands of people, says the group's executive director Charlene Tschirhart.