Allen: Keeping churches cool is costly

Luke Allen

As we head into summer, people of faith like myself prepare to endure a hot, stuffy hour of church each Sunday morning. We know we’ll soon be fanning ourselves with our programs as children shift uncomfortably, their legs sticking to the wooden pews.

Just as Michigan’s hot, humid summers cause many of us to sweat right through our “Sunday best,” the season also causes many clergy and congregation administrators sweat, too, over their utility bills.

Heating and cooling houses of worship is expensive. As some of our state’s oldest structures—many with features like high ceilings and single-paned stained glass—they are also costly to operate. The rising cost of energy is putting some congregations in dire straits. As faith communities face declining membership and tithes, some are left with a stark choice: shut the lights, or save souls.

My organization, Michigan Interfaith Power & Light, has been helping congregations become better stewards of the Earth through energy efficiency since 2002. In partnership with utilities and energy efficiency companies, we’ve found that basic energy efficiency measures mean big results.

Helping congregations take charge of their utility bills and enabling them to do more of God’s work provides important social benefits. By devoting more resources to their missions, churches, mosques, temples and religious communities of all stripes feed the hungry, clothe the poor and provide other vital support to people in need.

Less visibly, but no less significantly, curbing energy waste also means protecting our Earth. Because we still depend heavily on coal-fired power plants for our electricity, preventing energy waste means reducing the amount of toxic pollution that ends up in our air, soil and water. A cleaner environment leads to healthier communities.

In partnership with DTE Energy, Michigan Interfaith Power & Light demonstrated that energy assessments and about $800 worth of basic efficiency upgrades resulted in an average savings of almost $3,000 per house of worship in the first year. By providing these services to almost 50 houses of worship in Metro Detroit, this project saved enough energy to power 80 homes for one year.

With nine of Michigan’s oldest and dirtiest power plants closing over the coming years, we have a tremendous opportunity to set our state on a path toward a cleaner energy future. A targeted effort to reduce energy waste in our state’s 10,000 houses of worship would not only reduce energy demand, it would also provide benefits that ripple far beyond these buildings’ walls.

Michigan’s energy efficiency standard, put into place in 2008, directly enabled energy-saving projects like our efficiency pilot with DTE and has been hailed as a success for Michigan. The utilities are on track to meet their targets, and the Public Service Commission found that every $1 spent on energy efficiency yields nearly $4 in savings.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said that energy efficiency is a no-brainer. He’s right. Eliminating energy waste is not only the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.

Luke Allen is executive director of Michigan Interfaith Power & Light.