Praise the Lord and save some energy

October 28, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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It takes a lot of energy to cool the air inside a big church on a hot summer day — and a lot of energy to heat that space on a cold winter day. As energy prices go up — and as the debate increases on the impact of greenhouse gases on global warming — heating and cooling are big issues at many places of worship in West Michigan.

The federal EPA Energy Star information service estimates that “most congregations can cut energy costs by up to 30 percent by investing strategically in efficient equipment, facility upgrades and maintenance.” With help from organizations such as Michigan Interfaith Power & Light and the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas College — and acting independently on their own initiative — many West Michigan congregations have learned how to root the devil out of the details in energy costs.

A conference at Aquinas in early October that offered energy-saving ideas for houses of worship was a partnership of the Center for Sustainability and Michigan Interfaith Power & Light. MIPL sounds like a utility company, but it is really a nonprofit organization that bills itself as “a religious response to global warming … through energy conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy and education.”

Julie Lyons Bricker is executive director of MIPL, based in Royal Oak. About 170 religious facilities across Michigan — including Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist — are members of the organization, which was created in 2002. MIPL is an affiliate of California Interfaith Power & Light, which was formed in 2000 and had its roots in a coalition of California Episcopal churches that organized to purchase renewable energy.

Michigan was the third or fourth state to organize an Interfaith Power & Light, said Bricker; now there are 39. And the Michigan organization is still growing: “We’ve added about 25 members since Oct. 1,” she said.

“So many of the (religious facilities) were built in the past, when energy efficiency wasn’t on the radar,” noted Bricker. “Energy was cheap and people just didn’t worry about that too much. But now energy is not cheap and we don’t expect it to get any cheaper. In fact, it’s going to go up in price, so we’re trying to figure out how to help the churches reduce the money they are sending to the utility companies so they can put that money where they ought to be using it.”

In the past, MIPL had sufficient funding to offer free energy-use assessments to churches, “but we don’t have funding right now for it,” said Bricker. Now most of its activity is geared to educational workshops for houses of worship, such as the one held at Aquinas.

Climate change issues have “really captured the imagination and attention of many different congregations,” according to Deborah Steketee, executive director of the Center for Sustainability at Aquinas and a faculty member in the sustainable business department.

A goal of reducing carbon emissions “seems to be sort of a center point for a lot of church action. Dealing with their energy use is one very concrete way to address that issue,” said Steketee.

Both DTE and Consumers Energy were represented at the Oct. 5 conference to provide information on the services that public utilities can provide to churches.

Andrew Hoffman, professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan and associate director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, offered the keynote address: “The Role of the Corporation in 21st Century Society.”

Peter C. Boogaart is a volunteer at Hope Church in Holland, which is a member of the MIPL and is thought to be the second oldest church in Holland. He said global warming is not something that Hope’s congregation has taken an official stance on, but, he said, “for most members, that’s not a question.” Rather, he said the issue of global warming provides a link between faith and protection of the environment.

“We believe people of faith need to address those kinds of issues,” he said.

Hope Church had an energy audit done about three years ago, about the time it joined MIPL, according to Boogaart. The audit was done by RETAP, the Retired Engineer Technical Assistance Program that offers assistance to Michigan businesses and institutions in pollution prevention and energy efficiency. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, businesses with 500 or fewer employees and institutions of any size are eligible for free RETAP services.

The audit ended up being “an endorsement and confirmation of what our facility manager was already doing,” said Boogaart.

David Hawley, who was the facility manager at the time and still serves as a consultant to Hope Church, was “really talented” at understanding use of the building in conjunction with efficient use of the heating plant.

“Under his direction, we reduced our consumption of natural gas every year for six consecutive years,” said Boogaart. He said the cost of energy now is about $15,000 annually for electricity and about the same for natural gas.

He recently completed a review of the years from 2001 to 2005 compared to 2006 to 2010, and found that gas consumption was down 23 percent in the second period. “I think that reflects the quality of (Hawley’s) work,” he said.

However, even though the volume of gas used was cut by 23 percent, the price was shooting up. “Billings actually went up by 16 percent,” said Boogaart. “So we were paying more money to use 23 percent less. The implication is, had we not been efficient at energy savings, we would have been paying a lot more.”

Comparing the two five-year time frames, Hope Church electric use was reduced by 20 percent, “and in this case, the amount of billings went down by 2 percent,” he said.

Brian Bosgraff, a member of Georgetown Christian Reformed Church, was at the Aquinas conference because he owns Dwelltech Solutions, which offers home energy assessments and audits. Although Georgetown Christian Reformed is not a member of MIPL, the congregation decided to focus on energy efficiency when a 16,000-square-foot, three-story addition was built in 2008.

“The church added over 40 percent more space to the facilities and, at the same time, reduced its overall gas and electric bills by 10 percent. It’s about $5,000 worth of savings with a third more building,” said Bosgraff.

The expansion required the installation of seven new HVAC units on the roof. There were already nine HVAC units on the existing church building, but four of those were “ready to conk out,” said Bosgraff, so they were replaced with new units that were slightly more efficient.

The key step began with the connection of all 16 HVAC units into a web-based control system, Carrier i-Vu, which Carrier claims will allow total control of a Carrier HVAC system from anywhere in the world using a standard web browser. Then the church hired a part-time person to monitor the system to ensure that rooms that were scheduled to be used at a given time would be properly heated or cooled when that time arrived — and only then.

“She can do it very responsively, online, from her own home, on her own laptop,” said Bosgraff.

At the time, the congregation’s finance committee didn’t really understand how efficient the control system would be. Bosgraff said it initially budgeted for a $5,000 increase in energy cost because of the addition. “But what we found was, we had a $5,000 savings because of the controls. So it was more than a $10,000 swing in the budget.”

Bosgraff said there are companies, such as Midwest Energy Group, that can inspect a church and quickly identify “the low-hanging fruit” in energy cost reductions

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