'Green Tags' Support Wind Farms

December 23, 2004
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EAST LANSING — A partnership sealed in September between Michigan Interfaith Power & Light (MiIPL) and Vermont-based NativeEnergy has opened up a new market for wind power in Michigan

Under the partnership, NativeEnergy, a national marketer of renewable energy sources, is offering Renewable Energy Certificates, or "green tags," through MiIPL, a nonprofit coalition of congregations and faith-based organizations dedicated to sustainable energy.

A green tag is proof that a unit of electricity, for instance, one megawatt-hour, has been generated from a renewable energy source.

When customers purchase green tags from NativeEnergy, they're simultaneously helping Native American tribes develop sustainable economies, because green tag sales help finance construction of new wind farms and other renewable energy sources, according to MiIPL Executive Director Charles Morris, pastor of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, in Wyandotte

Not only did NativeEnergy offer a very good price, but there was a social justice component to the partnership, said Morris, who is part Cherokee and previously served on the Board of American Indian Health and Family Services of Southeast Michigan.

"It's an alternative way for tribal folk to gain economic independence," he said. "They are one of the most impoverished and one of the most suppressed people in this country."

Morris said the agreement with NativeEnergy "weds the vision of tribal economic development and sustainability with the faith community's commitment to combating global warming and promoting environmental justice."

The burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity is the leading industrial source of carbon dioxide emission, the primary contributor to global warming, MiIPL said.

According to Morris, indigenous people and others who depend on the environment for their livelihood are particularly vulnerable to subtle changes in climate. His organization's goal is to forestall global warming and climate change by encouraging people to implement sustainable practices, such as energy conservation, energy efficiency and use of renewable energy.

Any house of worship or religious entity in Michigan can join MiILP, including faith-based schools, hospitals, clinics and organizations, Morris said.

MiIPL estimates the average annual energy cost for a house of worship in Michigan is between $48 and $68 per square foot. Morris said MiIPL can help congregations, particularly those with older facilities, reduce utility costs by as much as 40 percent.

"Congregations are large energy users in Michigan and we're trying to help them reduce their energy costs by using energy efficient products, most of which are sold by small businesses in Michigan," said Mark Clevey, vice president of the Small Business Foundation of Michigan and director of the Entrepreneurial Development Center of the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM).

SBAM runs the state's Energy Star program under contract with the Michigan Department of Consumer and Industry Services.

Michigan currently imports 90 percent of its energy to the tune of nearly $20 billion a year, and it's expected to go up by $6 billion to $8 billion more in the next decade, Clevey said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Energy awarded St. Elizabeth Church the national Energy Star award in 2001. That brought Morris to Clevey's attention.

"When we realized there was a congregation out there that was doing really exceptional work in energy savings, I contacted him and asked if he thought he could do the same with a bunch of churches."

Subsequently, in the fall of 2002, Morris partnered with SBAM on the Michigan Energy Star Promotion Project to pilot the Energy Star Project for Congregations. MiIPL was formed as part of the pilot with Energy Star program seed money. SBAM served as an "incubator" for MiIPL and provides the organization with ongoing grants for operation, Clevey said.

Clevey said the business organization/faith-based organization partnership between MiIPL and SBAM has been so successful that SBAM recently won an EPA award and a grant to replicate the MiIPL project in five other states.

MiIPL incorporated as a nonprofit in late 2003, and has since grown to include 70 member congregations, Morris said. MiIPL provides member congregations with energy audits, training for facilities managers, technical assistance, and discounts through aggregate purchasing via SBAM.

SBAM has 7,000 members so it's in a position to negotiate significant bulk discounts on everything from energy to computers, health insurance, Energy Star appliances and HVAC systems, Clevey noted. MiIPL members get all the benefits of SBAM membership for just $10 as opposed to the normal $165-a-year fee.

"What we're doing is to simply allow the congregations to join into that aggregation pool. MiIPL joined with us so they could merge into our buying pool. We're always trying to find new ways to get discounted items for our members."

Between 1998 and 2003, his congregation reduced its peak energy consumption by 60 percent as a result of its energy conservation efforts. Morris said St. Elizabeth Church saves about $20,000 in annual utility costs because of the changes it has made. On top of that, he said, the municipal utility reduced St. Elizabeth's demand charge by $300 a month because of its reduced consumption.

About seven circuits in St. Elizabeth's rectory, for instance, are solar powered. The rectory boasts a wind turbine, solar hot water heater and solar attic fan. All the lights in the school and rectory were replaced with fluorescent lights. The rectory's aging windows have been replaced with low E glass, and next up is replacement of the building's HVAC system. His congregation has added energy efficient lighting to the church, as well as new window treatments, caulking and weather stripping to boost energy conservation.

Locally, MiIPL member congregation First United Methodist has ordered more than 250 compact fluorescent lights for its church and administration building and is in the process of weather stripping the buildings, Morris said.

"You do an energy audit first to identify where your fastest paybacks will be and start with that," he explained. "When they pay for themselves, you can take those savings and invest them in further upgrades, so it's a continual process.

"We spent $5,000 for an energy audit in 1997 and it was worth every penny," Morris said, noting that energy assessments for MiIPL members are currently free because they're covered under a grant through Energy Star. "We've followed a systematic, strategic plan in the years since. We're trying to point to a better way. You're not only saving money, but it's a way to reduce our greenhouse gas output for a more sustainable future."  

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