Episcopal Power and Light:
Recognizing the Moral Imperative of Climate Protection
Scientists can inform us of the causes, risks and potential consequences of global warming. Economists can chart the costs and benefits of reducing these risks. We can all ponder the choices. But it is communities of faith who have taken the lead in articulating the moral imperative involved in protecting our climate. Two pioneers in this effort are Reverend Sally Bingham, minister of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, and Steve MacAusland, Co-chair of the Committee on Faith and the Environment for the Diocese of Massachusetts.
In 1997, at the 70th Convention of the Episcopal Church, the House of Bishops passed a resolution affirming their "…responsibility for the earth in trust for this and future generations" and called on all citizens of the world, and Episcopalians in particular, to live lives as good stewards with responsible concern for the sustainability of the environment.
Of particular concern to them was the rising threat of global climate change, which led them to ask members to practice energy efficiency, and thereby put their "faith into action."
Enter Reverend Sally Bingham and Steve MacAusland. After following advances in energy efficiency technologies, the deregulation of the electric industry, and the development of renewable energy, they saw an historic opportunity for the religious community to put its faith into action by playing an active role in reducing the threat of climate change.
They spearheaded the Episcopal Power and Light program, to help members establish a clean energy program among the 8,000 Episcopal churches nationwide, as well as share their expertise with the entire interfaith community, comprising about 340,000 houses of worship throughout the country.
Amazingly, in just the past year, half of the churches in the Episcopal Diocese of California - 60 in all, as well as two cathedrals, have switched to 100% green power . Their power now comes from solar, wind and small-scale hydroelectric sources, entirely replacing their dependence on fossil-fueled electricity. California is one of the states, along with Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which currently allow customers to switch their electricity provider, including to those supplying green power.
In the general scheme of things, churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship don't consume as much energy as most manufacturing industries or commercial establishments. However, as religious congregations increasingly emphasize the connection between their faith and the threat of global warming, we are witnessing the emergence of a new and powerful force for change.
In her role as a leader of Episcopal Power and Light, Reverend Bingham preaches and leads forums throughout the country, encouraging participants to take action by purchasing green power and improving their energy efficiency.
Often her teachings involve answering some technical questions like where electricity comes from. She also needs to explain to her audiences why a church and its congregation should be involved in confronting global warming at all. The theological answer she offers is that one shouldn't impose problems on future generations or one's neighbors, especially those in poor countries, who will be the most heavily affected by climate change, and who are the least able to adapt.
"That's not to say there aren't a lot of doubting Thomases who argue otherwise. Some congregation members wonder if "environmentally friendly" power will actually prove reliable. Others plead issues of cost. Some less well off churches believe they simply can't afford green power, since, although a few suppliers offer it at the same price as "dirty" power, it does typically sell at a slight premium. "In this case," says Reverend Bingham, "the argument I make is that they can replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps and save money sufficient to offset the cost of green power."
In addition, by combining the purchasing power of churches and their congregations into what is known as an "aggregate", Episcopal Power and Light receives a rebate of $35 per household from Greenmountain.com for their congregation members. St. John's Episcopal Church in Clayton, California, has earned upwards of $4000 from their members signing up to switch their household energy supplier.
"Joining together by dioceses and provinces, we can pool our purchasing power to reduce the cost and pay-back times for those investments," Reverend Bingham pointed out. "In this way alone, we can save dramatically on our overhead and put those savings to work where they are needed. At the same time, we will cut our consumption of energy and our emissions of greenhouse gases."
Thanks to Reverend Bingham and McAusland and many others, religious communities throughout the country are beginning to awaken to new opportunities for environmental stewardship.
As Reverend Bingham explains, it takes persistent effort to persuade churches to take action. She typically first meets with the Bishop to answer questions and gain support. Then together, they try to persuade each diocese to pass a resolution on the link between global warming and the church's role in environmental stewardship. This then makes it easier to convince individual churches to purchase green power.
In the states where the electricity supply is not deregulated yet and customers have no choice over their energy provider, Episcopal Power and Light has adopted other climate protection strategies. For example, McAusland has been working with churches in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York to help them develop energy efficiency business plans to reduce their carbon emissions.
In Iowa, some churches are using wind power to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, at a modest increase in energy costs of just a few dollars per month. In other states, churches are putting solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on their roofs, such as those who have joined the PV Pioneer program offered by Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
The Episcopal Church's 73rd National Convention held in Denver the summer of 2000 was totally powered with wind power, which took a year and half to negotiate with the Public Service Company of Colorado. The Church challenged the Republican and Democratic parties to do the same at their respective Presidential conventions, leading the Democrats to run their convention in Los Angeles entirely on renewable energy.
Most recently, the Episcopal Power and Light leadership has joined up with the California Council of Churches, which represents 3,400 congregations of many different faiths, to set up an Interfaith Power and Light program. With support, these sorts of efforts will set an example for similar actions across the country and the world. Already the National Council of Churches, encompassing the 340,000 U.S. congregations, and the World Council of Churches are starting to develop similar programs. As Reverend Bingham remarks, "the community of faith can set a model for the secular world. When people who love God stand up to steward God's gifts, other people take notice."
Reverend Sally Bingham
c/o Grace Cathedral
1100 California Street, San Francisco, CA 94108
Check out the web site for the Regeneration Project and Episcopal Power.
The Regeneration Project
"The Regeneration Project is a charity which is creating a model for all dioceses who wish to take up the challenge of turning the tide of the radical decline in the earth's gifts of soil and seas and atmosphere."
The National Religious Partnership for the Environment launched in 1990 after an "open letter" sent by leading scientists to religious leaders about the global crisis in the environment.
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life
Evangelical Environmental Network
Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility
This interfaith group of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish institutional investors is the leading organization in the shareholder resolution process and has been instrumental in getting companies to take climate protection seriously and leave such anti-environmental protection groups as the Global Climate Coalition.
Green-e Label Renewable Electricity Program
Green Power Network
News clearinghouse on green power markets and utility green pricing programs.