Center for American Progress

Good Stewards of Creation, Good Stewards of Their Budgets

Good Stewards of Creation, Good Stewards of Their Budgets

Congregations Work with Energy Star to Reduce Carbon Footprints and Utility Bills

Houses of worship are saving big with new tools to reduce their energy use, writes Marta Cook.

Lakewood Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch in Houston, Texas, saved $360,000 on its annual utility costs through better energy management. (AP/Pat Sullivan)
Lakewood Church, an evangelical Christian megachurch in Houston, Texas, saved $360,000 on its annual utility costs through better energy management. (AP/Pat Sullivan)

Can you imagine what a church might do with $360,000 in extra money—especially if it is saved without laying off staff, canceling programs, or increasing contributions from parishioners?

Lakewood Church in Texas, an evangelical Christian megachurch, has the pleasant task of deciding where to direct exactly that amount of money, which they were able to save from reducing their annual utility costs through better energy management. Lakewood Church is not alone, either. Across the country, churches large and small are working with the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce their energy bills and use the savings to live out their message of financial and environmental stewardship.

The EPA’s Energy Star program provides technical information and support to congregations interested in lowering their utility bills and being more environmentally responsible. They also provide public recognition to houses of worship that dramatically reduce energy usage relative to the square footage of the worship buildings. Energy Star has even developed energy management technical tools, such as their Portfolio Manager, to address the specific challenges a building faces in becoming less energy intensive, from a small business building to a church’s facilities.

For example, Energy Star notes that a church, unlike a residential home, will probably have its most intensive heating and cooling needs on weekends. During the week, some unused areas of the building might be zoned off to avoid wasting money on unnecessary heating or cooling. And in a true sign of Energy Star’s due diligence in its religious research, it provides information about new stained glass window technology (low-E insulated glass) that offers better insulation.

It is quite remarkable that a government program has such a tailored, well-thought-out strategy for congregations’ specific challenges to energy reduction efforts. When asked how and why the Energy Star recommendations for congregations were developed, Jerry Lawson, national manager for the ENERGY STAR Small Business & Congregations Network, said, “faith communities were literally asking for it. We noticed in the beginning with our small business programs, churches and synagogues were joining that because they had nowhere else to go. That led us to start learning about worship facilities.”

Energy Education, based in Dallas, TX, is a major energy management consulting firm that uses Energy Star recommendations to work with congregations on reducing their utility costs and carbon footprint. The EPA has recognized the firm as an Energy Star Partner of the Year in 2009 and 2010. Energy Education focuses on large churches with annual utility costs of at least $750,000.

When asked in an interview how congregations respond when his firm reaches out to them, Mike Gullat, senior vice president for corporate communications, “People are very receptive—the program saves church dollars, which are very precious these days. It’s biblical—churches are being good stewards of their funds and the environment.” He added, “Energy efficiency is good for everybody—good for the church, good for the community they’re in.”

The EPA’s Energy Star program, however, is not only for large churches with big budgets. Churches of all sizes and means can benefit from its recommendations. A first step might be to replace inefficient incandescent light bulbs with compact flourescent lamps. CFLs use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and can last 10 times longer. Replacing weather stripping and caulking in doors and windows are also easy, inexpensive ways to reduce heating and cooling energy use.

Mike Gullat of Energy Education echoes the view that houses of worship of all sizes can also benefit from reducing their energy usage: “The most important thing is for church members to become educated on how they use energy on a day to day basis, on overall consumption and on their collective responsibility for reducing use. Some of the most helpful changes are easy and free, such as turning off equipment at the end of the day, so it does not wastefully burn energy throughout the night.”

For congregations looking to go the extra mile with energy use reduction, there are more comprehensive actions they can take to dramatically reduce energy costs. One of the most important first steps to a comprehensive energy reduction strategy for a congregation is having a specialist perform an energy audit of the facility buildings. This involves identifying, measuring, and analyzing the church, synagogue, or mosque facility’s use of energy for lighting, heating, cooling, and other energy-intensive systems. Using Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager can help houses of worship (or any organization) to “track energy and water use trends as compared with the costs of these resources.” This way, houses of worship can track and measure consumption, appliance and system performance, and other critical data. With these data, churches then have a much better idea of where to start their energy reduction strategy.

These actions might require upfront costs, but for congregations planning for the mid and long term—even smaller ones with tighter budgets—the cost savings should be well worth it. After all, churches are in the business of long-term thinking.

While carbon is one of the biggest dirty little words of Washington, with members of Congress refusing to acknowledge its harmful impact on the environment, congregations across the country are skipping the political drama and getting to work on their home turf. In all regions of the country, from Nevada to Pennsylvania to Arkansas, congregations have found a new way to both further their religious mission and save on their bills. They see it for exactly what it is—not a political hot potato, but a win for everybody.

Let’s hope our politicians catch up soon to their congregations back home.

Marta Cook is a Research Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy program at the Center for American Progress.

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