Beyond belief: Faith communities embrace environmental stewardship

HOLE-Y GROUND: In a mechanical room below the sanctuary of Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, pumps circulate water through a closed geothermal heating and cooling system. Photo by Virginia Daffron

Churches are a special type of building — funded, operated and occupied by a community of users who must balance such priorities as care for the community, evangelism, education and worship. Even as these considerations remain crucial, many faith communities are also increasingly aware of ethical and faith-based imperatives to reduce the environmental impact of their operations.

As Asheville’s First Congregational United Church of Christ approached the century mark, some of the systems that powered the building were showing their age. In 2012, the church’s massive gas-fired boiler gave up the ghost, and the congregation faced a difficult choice.

Alongside the option of replacing the boiler with a new $25,000 unit, the congregation also considered a geothermal heating and cooling system, even though it would cost almost 20 times as much. The church, known for its commitment to environmental leadership, had already installed a solar array in 2011.

Minister of Music Gary Mitchell recalls that he was “flabbergasted” when the congregation opted for the geothermal system. “I thought, ‘These people are really willing to put their money where their mouth is,’” he marvels.

To install the system, the contractor bored 10 550-foot wells on the church’s property. Water circulates through the wells in a closed loop of more than a mile of piping, either pulling heat from the ground or returning it there.

Overall, geothermal systems use about 40 percent less energy than conventional systems, says engineer Bob Wiggins. With more than 65 community groups using First Congregational’s building during both day and evening hours, savings from lower operating costs will cover the large upfront construction cost in 15 to 20 years, he predicts.

The choice to invest in the geothermal system is a sign of things to come, notes Scott Hardin-Nieri, director of the Creation Care Alliance of Western North Carolina. More and more local faith communities, he says, “are seeking ways to heal the planet,” investing time and money to align their buildings and practices with their spiritual commitment.

Here comes the sun

Congregants at Asheville’s Parish of St. Eugene weren’t just persuaded by Pope Francis urging people of all faiths to accept responsibility for the many environmental issues confronting humanity — they were out in front of it. First proposed in July 2014, a project to install 147 solar panels on the church’s roof was completed in October of last year.

The 46-kilowatt setup provides about 25 percent of the church’s electricity and is net-metered to sell surplus power back to the grid when the sunlight is strongest.

Another local congregation, the First Christian Church of Black Mountain, has also embraced solar, says Hardin-Nieri. Working with the Appalachian Institute for Renewable Energy, a Boone-based nonprofit, the church financed its solar project through a limited liability company. Since the beginning of this year, the system has produced more power than the church has used.

Show me a sign

While the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville first set out to improve its building’s accessibility, the church found itself expanding the scope of a recent 18-month, $1 million construction project to address stormwater management and energy use issues as well.

Landscape architect Hutch Kerns designed a system that directs rainwater from the building’s roof, parking lot and new outdoor terraces into collection tanks. From the tanks, the water is slowly released into specially designed gardens that slow the absorption rate, so the water gradually filters into the ground rather than pouring into storm drains. Now, says the Rev. Mark Ward, all the rain that falls on the church’s nearly 2-acre property will stay there.

Meanwhile, 19 energy-efficient LED fixtures shed a soft glow outside the building at night, lighting up walkways and illuminating a new landmark sign.

Sustainable growth

Sometimes the benefits of an environmental project can go beyond just reducing power usage. At Congregation Beth HaTephila on North Liberty Street, a renovation and expansion project injected new life into a tired and inefficient complex. The renovations gave the facility more space without increasing energy usage, according to Bob Davis, chair of the synagogue’s House Committee. And the sanctuary, social hall, classrooms and administrative offices are now far more comfortable.

“With our old steam boiler, we had pipes clanging and banging in the sanctuary walls. It made a racket on cold winter days,” Davis recalls. New insulation, high-efficiency air-handling units, programmable thermostats and energy-efficient fluorescent lighting were all part of the project.

Meanwhile, the changes are paying off in ways that go beyond dollars and cents. “Now we can do more because we have better space,” Davis reflects. “Our membership is growing. At most temples around the country, that’s not the case. And the building is part of that.”

A central component

As the cost of alternative energy systems comes down and techniques for boosting building efficiency improve, faith communities can increasingly justify environmental projects in financial terms as well.

Energy audits, says Creation Care’s Hardin-Nieri, can help congregations identify opportunities to save money, freeing up resources for serving the community. “That’s a goal shared by every denomination,” he observes.

Increasingly, people of faith are seeing concern for the Earth as a central component of their moral and spiritual values. And, as boilers break down and other challenges arise, says Hardin-Nieri, the opportunities to meet practical needs while nurturing the environment will produce new solutions, both in our region and beyond.



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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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