News

Solar Panels Rare Amid the Steeples


March 6, 2013
By Kate Galbraith
New York Times


AUSTIN, TEXAS — More than three decades ago, after an energy crisis that gripped the world, a Catholic priest in the Texas city of Lubbock took a stand for the environment. His congregation needed a new church. So the priest, the Rev. Joe James, anchored the building deep in the earth to optimize insulation. He also ordered five wind turbines for the church grounds. The largest was called Big Bird, because it stood 80 feet tall.

“I don’t feel as though we are free to waste,” Father James told a videographer at the time. Staring earnestly into the camera, he argued that saving money was not the only reason for energy conservation.

Father James, who still lives near Lubbock, was an outlier. In the intervening years, few churches have made energy saving a priority. Experts say that churches, like other houses of worship, face particular challenges in going green because of unusual architecture and an often slow decision-making culture. Even Father James’s wind turbines got dismantled in the 1990s, after he had moved on.

Still, as the likely effects of climate change on people and nature become clearer, some religious leaders are increasing their engagement. Pope Benedict XVI, who stepped down last week, has been hailed as the “green pope.” He put solar panels on the roof of a Vatican auditorium, though they are out of sight of the general public. Last year, he also acquired an electric car to get around the grounds of his summer residence. Environmentalists will be eager to see whether the next pope makes green issues a priority.

The Church of England has a goal of reducing its carbon footprint 42 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

Peter Pavlovic, who works on the environmental agenda for the Conference of European Churches, said concerns about climate change were prompting more church groups to engage communities and politicians on the issue.

“It’s human-induced climate change,” he said. “We are part of it. And we have to take responsibility for that.”

Reducing the carbon footprint of the churches themselves may present a greater challenge than promoting environmentalism from the pulpit. Church buildings, which are often old and poorly insulated, offer plenty of scope for improvement. Bee Moorhead, executive director of Texas Impact, a multifaith advocacy group, said that the second largest expenditure for churches and other houses of worship was typically energy, after salaries for members of the clergy and staff. Church sanctuaries can be so large that the heat gets turned on two days before the Sunday services, according to Jochen Geraedts, a Netherlands-based expert on the preservation of religious buildings. Sometimes more of the building gets heated than is actually used.

Cost savings tend to be a bigger real-world motivator for churches than reducing their carbon footprints, Mr. Geraedts said. But upfront costs can be daunting. Upgrades to heating and cooling systems can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Ms. Moorhead, and historic features like stained-glass windows are often a lost cause in terms of energy efficiency.

Government incentives for green improvements have been cut back in parts of Europe and the United States. But even where government help is available, nonprofit organizations cannot always take advantage of the same tax incentives as for-profit institutions, Ms. Moorhead said.

Putting solar panels on the roof poses additional challenges in architecture and aesthetics. In theory, church roofs are an ideal place for solar panels. “There’s a lot of square meters of roof available for solar panels,” said Mr. Geraedts, noting that because most European churches were built east to west, they had south-facing roofs, which is optimal for generating energy in the Northern Hemisphere. But roofs must be sturdy enough, and historic buildings may run into preservation barriers.

Solar remains on the to-do list at St. David’s Episcopal Church in the center of Austin, Texas. It offers recycling for cellphones, batteries and other unusual items. It recently improved its heating and air-conditioning system and even conducts occasional services outside.

“On a beautiful spring morning when you’re doing a sermon on creation, what better place to have it?” said Rosera Tateosian, a parishioner who heads the church’s environmental guild.

But because the 19th-century church is a historic building, solar panels raise the question, “Is that what people want to see on the roof?” she said.

In 2011, Bradford Cathedral put 42 solar panels on its roof, becoming the first cathedral in Britain to take that step, officials of the Anglican cathedral said. The project cost about £50,000, or $75,000, according to Canon Andy Williams. The anticipated payback time is 14 to 15 years, he said.

One concern was damage to the original roof if the wind hit the solar equipment in a certain way, Canon Williams said. But specially designed clamps solved the problem.

One of the biggest barriers to going green may be the way churches are run.

With many volunteers involved, meetings can be sporadic and budgeting processes slow, according to Ms. Moorhead. “Churches aren’t running on the same kind of cash-flow model as a business,” she said.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/07/business/energy-environment/07iht-green07.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y&_r=0