Q & A with Ed Smyth on Congregational Energy Efficiency

EdSmythOur congregation would like to reduce our building’s carbon footprint. How do we do that?

The first step is to get an energy assessment.  This gives you a complete snapshot of all the cost-effective upgrade or replacement strategies that reduce utility bills and greenhouse gases. Energy assessments are available through NYSERDA (the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority). Click here to get more information, or call NYIPL.

What does an energy audit cost?

For small businesses and non-profits (including houses of worship) these assessments are fully paid by NYSERDA, and conducted by specialized engineering firms contracted by NYSERDA.

The funding for these assessments come through a charge in your electric utility bill, called a “System Benefits Charge”.  You’re getting back what you’ve paid for!

We already changed all of our light fixtures to compact fluorescent light bulbs? What else should we be doing?

Most houses of worship spend 55% to 60% of their energy bills on heating. While lighting is important, it’s effective insulation, weatherseal, and weatherproofing that will give the largest benefit to most houses of worship.

We don’t have much money for improvements of this kind. How can we afford it?

NYSERDA offers several low-interest financing options to small businesses and non-profits (including houses of worship) after they participate in an energy assessment and receive the results.  Find out more here.

Can we do these upgrades on historic buildings?

Yes. When the NYSERDA contractor does the walkthrough and assessments, he/she will be looking for strategies on recommendations that fit within the current building – lighting, heating/cooling, insulation, and weathersealing. Typically any work that involves exterior façade or interior changes are beyond the scope of an assessment, and would be cost-prohibitive.

What are some examples of congregations that have already done this?

Many houses of worship have successfully reduced costs and supported creation stewardship by following through with recommendations from an energy assessment.  Visit the EnergySTAR website – www.energystar.gov – and enter “worship” in the search box to find the full stories.

Ed Smyth is a senior manager and consultant for KEMA, (an international consulting firm for the energy industry) and a board member of NYIPL.

Huguenot Church Installs Geothermal Energy System

Huguenot Church in Pelham, New York has taken their commitment to the environment to a new level; they have decided to install a geothermal energy system in their 135-year-old church, taking a major step toward independence from fossil fuels.

Going to geothermal power is a dramatic move, but Elysa Hammond, an elder at Huguenot Church and co-leader of their environmental stewardship initiative, said that this is just the most recent step in years of making changes.

One of the first seeds of “climate awareness” was planted in 2004 when a speaker from New York Interfaith Power & Light spoke at Huguenot, discussing the reasons why people of faith need to care about climate change.  That presentation led to Huguenot’s membership in NYIPL and to their church building’s first energy audit.

Then the congregation showed An Inconvenient Truth to a full house, and brought in other experts on global warming including an environmental economist, a journalist from National Geographic, and a theologian.  Increasingly their congregation began to believe that addressing climate change was “the right thing to do.”

From there, they began taking concrete steps such as switching out incandescent light bulbs for compact florescent ones, placing recycling bins throughout the building, and reducing their use of disposable dishes at social events. When presented with routine maintenance needs or investments in furniture, carpets and flooring, they began to seek out the use of more sustainable materials. With each decision they would ask themselves, “Is this compatible with our mission?”

The geothermal plan began to take shape two years ago when a few things happened that necessitated –and inspired– change. First, another congregation that had been sharing the space and maintenance costs found their own church building and left. Then, Huguenot began to have difficulty with their oil-based heating system, and they decided that it must be replaced.

Huguenot’s minister, who is very committed to the environment, and other leadership decided to hold a retreat to “re-imagine” their building space so that it would support the whole ministry of the church, which includes a pre-school, several youth groups, multiple choirs and other community organizations.

After much discussion at the retreat, they decided that the wisest energy choice, given their long-term commitment to remain in the building and community, would be geothermal. One advantage is that it provides year-round heating and cooling. When they looked at the positive impact this would have on their annual utility bills, “the payback was huge.”

They named their fundraising campaign “Sustainable Huguenot” because geothermal power is not only a renewable source of energy where the planet is concerned, but also investing in geothermal energy would lead to a long-term reduction in energy payments, increasing the financial sustainability of the congregation. It will take at least fifteen years to make their money back, but in the life of this 135-year-old church which plans on being around for another 100 years, fifteen years is an investment that makes sense.

Huguenot’s campaign has been blessed with a wonderfully diverse group of people who are helping to make this dream a reality including church leaders with professional backgrounds in architecture, finance, engineering and environmental science.

Jeff Marcks, who led the capital campaign, mentions that congregations might consider using their own endowments to finance such projects. Huguenot did this, and is paying back into their endowment as contributions for the capital campaign come in.

Marcks says that one thing that helped Huguenot achieve their goal is that the leadership and congregation share a common vision to make the building and its management consistent with their mission as a church. Huguenot is deeply committed to being a good steward of their natural resources. They also know that the money saved on utility bills can be put to use in more positive ways.  Hammond offers these words of encouragement: “It takes time to arrive at a decision like this,” she says, “but looking back I can see how our small steps in environmental education and action have added up. We hope our story will encourage others to consider this path.”

Exit Signs Can Be Energy Hogs

Pastors Tyler and Neal "basking in the glow" of the exit signs

Exit signs are just not something you think about, but exit signs run continually…that’s 365 days a year, 24 hours per day or 8760 hours a year.

Jonesville UMC’s energy audit recommended a simple, but effective way to save energy and money: change their exit signs from regular light bulbs (2 – 25 watt bulbs per sign) to LEDs (1 watt each).

Jonesville had 20 exit signs throughout the church, so this simple change was equivalent to turning off 19-50 watt bulbs. The change was as simple as unscrewing the old bulb and screwing in the new and took all of 2 hours to do the entire church!

This one simple change has a big energy stewardship impact:

  • fewer problems for people with asthma – prevents the emission of about 9 pounds of nitrogen oxide, the main ingredient in ozone or smog, which is especially harmful to people with asthma;
  • less acid rain – prevents the emission of about 27 pounds of sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain; and
  • less mercury pollution – especially damaging to pregnant women and children
  • prevents global warming – prevents the emission of about 7 tons of carbon dioxide, the principal global warming gas.

And this translates to an annual saving of $900 a year – this year and EVERY YEAR FROM NOW ON!

They’re also labor-saving: the LEDs have a lifetime of 100,000 hours…therefore the next change is in 2015.

The cost of the LEDs was $12 each or a total of $240. And as a result of taking action on this recommendation, NYSERDA reimbursed Jonesville for the entire $200 cost of the Energy Audit (the cost of which has since been reduced). This is just one of seven cost-effective measures identified by the Energy Audit.