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Churches relying on renewable energy sources

Wind, solar, and geothermal power in use or planned at several Unitarian Universalist churches.
By Jane Greer
11.28.05

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Unity Temple schematic

Schematic plans for geothermal energy system at Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park, Illinois.

Whether driven by a concern about global warming or by the rising costs of fossil fuel, an increasing number of Unitarian Universalist congregations are becoming almost completely reliant upon renewable energy sources ranging from wind to solar to geothermal power. Several others are in the process of installing or investigating alternative sources.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula in Carmel, California, now gets 100 percent of its electricity from solar power. The energy is generated by 180 solar panels installed on the church’s property. Ironically, the panels sit on a swath of land already cleared by Pacific Gas and Electric for power lines. Congregant Greg Wolfson, an expert in solar energy, oversaw the project, which cost $250,000--although this amount was offset by a state rebate of $110,000 offered to institutions installing alternative energy systems. Wolfson said that the new system would eventually save the congregation $5,000 a year in electricity bills.

The congregation decided to adopt solar energy as part of its efforts to obtain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification through the U.S. Green Building Council and in preparation for the construction of a new building. In addition to providing economical and environmentally friendly energy, the project has created a lot of interest in the outside community. The church hosted the Monterey Solar Home Tour, which attracted more than 200 participants.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, in Williamsville, New York, decided to switch to wind power after a group of congregants did an energy audit of the building. Walter Simpson, an environmental professional and member of the congregation, championed the switch. “I think religious organizations need to step up to the plate and demonstrate leadership in the use of renewable energy sources,” he said. The Amherst church is the first church in New York state to get all of its electricity through wind.

The wind energy is made available through Community Energy, Inc. Wind power customers pay a small premium over usual utility rates, about two cents per kilowatt hour in the case of the Amherst church. This amounts to $1,500 a year, which is subsidized by the gifts of individual church donors. The surcharge goes to Community Energy for the building and maintenance of wind farms. The congregation is taking great pride in supporting the development of wind power, says Simpson.

The Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva, Illinois, also gets all of its electricity from wind and was the first church in that state to use 100 percent wind power. The change to wind has had a ripple effect on the congregation, says Sandy Justis, chair of the Green Sanctuary committee. Twelve church members have signed up to use wind power in their homes, and two congregants began Batavia Concerned Citizens for Clean Energy and Conservation, an organization that successfully lobbied for the creation of a new city energy commission.

The Unitarian Church in Davenport, Iowa, is in the midst of installing a geothermal system good for heating and cooling. “It will be in by winter--we hope,” says chair of the board Martha Easter-Wells. The system is based on technology using the below-the-surface temperature of the earth, which remains constant year-round--ranging from 45 to 70 degrees depending on location. Pipes are laid or drilled into the ground and fluid circulates from underground into the building where it is converted by a geoexchange system into heating or cooling.

The congregation had raised money for air conditioning the sanctuary as well as other improvements. The board decided to borrow extra money for the geothermal system, however, knowing that the savings in energy costs would offset the initial investment. Although some congregants were leary about borrowing the money, they were all in favor of geothermal power. “People felt good to be doing something right for the environment,” said Easter-Wells, “and it was a financially sound decision.”

Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation, in Oak Park, Illinois, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is doing feasibility studies for a new geothermal system. According to legend, the original heating system designed by Wright permitted so much hot air to escape that the surrounding trees blossomed all winter while the congregation froze. The congregation is awaiting the results of the studies to see if it will get government funding for the project. The project would impact more than the congregation itself. “Because of the international significance of Unity Temple,” says Keith Bringe, executive director of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation, “Such a project would serve as a model for green retrofitting of historic properties.”

The Unitarian Universalist Church West of Brookfield, Wisconsin, is another congregation using alternative energy bought through their local utility company. As part of the “Energy for Tomorrow” program offered by Wisconsin Electric, customers can choose to pay 25, 50, or 100 percent of their utilities bills using renewable energy. The energy is generated by wind, hydro, and biomass power. Using the renewable energy sources costs the church around $900 extra each year. It’s well worth it, says the Rev. Suzelle Lynch. “The church may look no different,” she says, “but you can feel the earth-honoring energy of this congregation in every room and see it in every face.” The Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth accredited the church as a green sanctuary in 2004.

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