By Ariel Miller

When one path fails, find another. Though what I am about to describe is not a Rotary project, I am a Rotarian. This is my own story about mobilizing who I am, where I serve, and who I know to live within our planetary means.

I’m from the American state of Ohio. In 2019, the Ohio Legislature passed a law killing the state’s requirement that utilities increase their renewable energy portfolios, as well as the program through which utilities had to help customers pay for efficiency retrofits. In the years before and since, these lawmakers also enacted several laws imposing higher hurdles on renewable energy projects than on other forms of electric generation. For years I’ve been submitting testimony imploring legislators to take a different path. So have the vast majority of the other citizens who wrote or called their legislators as these bills were introduced, debated, and passed. Every time, we went down in defeat.

But I belong to the Episcopal Church, one of the Christian denominations that see climate change as a humanitarian catastrophe. Within a year of these heartbreaking setbacks in public policy, a group of us persuaded the leaders of our church’s regional organization – the Diocese of Southern Ohio – to take action on the climate crisis through the matters we could control. We proposed a plan. The Trustees reflected, and turned it down. But then, to our amazement, they proposed something far more effective, making a vastly bigger commitment by all concerned.

This unfolded in the way climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe recommends: by appealing to shared values and identifying win-win solutions.

In this case, the values include our faith’s concern for the health and well-being of people harmed by climate change and air pollution, both here and worldwide.

Ohio depends more on coal-fired plants than the national average. Most of our churches are cavernous, old, and leaky. Collectively, our congregations manage a million square feet of building space across the southern half of this state. We consume huge amounts of energy to heat these buildings in Ohio’s dank, cold winters, and cool them in our sultry summers. Energy efficiency is one of the most powerful actions we can take to mitigate climate change and to reduce air pollution.

Here’s the win-win: the less electricity churches use, the more money they save to use for programs they really value. And, in a nation where many public Christian voices still deny that human activity has anything to do with climate change, a Christian denomination acting to reduce it will surprise and comfort young people appalled by what’s unfolding across our planet.  Like many Rotarians who welcome the environmental area of focus, Episcopalians see climate action as a way to engage the next generation.

The adventure began when my parish hosted a screening of the National Geographic film “From Paris to Pittsburgh” in 2019.  The film showed what ordinary American communities were doing to mitigate climate change at a time when then-President Donald Trump had pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. The sustainability director of our city, Cincinnati, attended the event to take questions at the end of the documentary. Ken Wright, an Episcopal engineer who is passionate about solar power, asked him if he thought churches could use the Power Purchase Agreement strategy (PPA) through which Cincinnati financed the construction of the nation’s largest municipal solar array at no expense to taxpayers.

The challenge was how to make a project placing rooftop panels on scattered-site churches attractive to the investors we’d need to finance it.  Our diocese has a large endowment and a great credit rating: maybe they could be the guarantor if a church couldn’t pay its monthly electric bills to the PPA, which would own the panels until they were paid off.  One of our deacons is an engineer and HVAC efficiency expert whose consulting firm does energy audits and has helped scores of Ohio congregations of many denominations implement efficiency retrofits and qualify for utility company rebates (until the legislature ended them). 

That deacon, Craig Foster, PE, contacted other environmentally-concerned Episcopalians, and we built a task force that set to work to recruit churches.  It included experts on renewable energy, clergy, and three random ardent laypeople like me. Craig’s firm completed Level II energy audits for all interested churches, evaluating their suitability for solar and providing them a road map for efficiency retrofits that could save them money.  The Diocesan trustees were initially receptive to the project, and instructed their legal team to review the financial agreement with the potential investors.

In the end, fifteen churches committed to rooftop solar. Projections of the annual electric bill savings were not very big until the panels were paid off, so the project’s appeal was mainly on the basis of our faith community’s ethics: stewardship of creation and commitment to social justice. (The Rotary equivalent is fairness and benefit to all concerned.)

The 25-year PPA contract was supposed to be signed in December of 2019, but the Trustees of the Diocese became concerned. Many of our congregations are ageing and shrinking, and some have closed in recent years. The Trustees feared the Diocese would be saddled with monthly bills for participating churches that could well face funding crises or close before the contract ended.  They decided not to sign the PPA contract.

Our task force was crushed. We set up one-on-one meetings with each trustee to learn about their concerns, and proposed two alternate strategies to save the solar project. The Trustees pondered our ideas. They declined to advance the rooftop solar project, but – to our amazement and delight – countered with a plan of their own including a huge financial commitment.

“We do, however, want to respond to these Creation Care proposals with a more inclusive initiative designed to both encourage immediate action on instituting energy-saving procedures, and by doing so, heightening the awareness of the challenges of climate change,” they wrote. 

They promised to provide a grant of up to $10,000 to every congregation that made eligible energy efficiency retrofits, plus offering each church the option of an additional $10,000 in loans at 3% interest –  now well below market rates.  They then put our task force in charge of creating the criteria for the grants and loans, helping churches choose eligible actions, and reviewing the proposals.

We set to work.  The free energy audits which Craig’s firm had completed were extremely useful in showing individual churches what would be practical and cost-effective for them.  As of this writing, 30 churches have made efficiency retrofits since 2021, twice as many as those that would have joined the solar PPA.   Many congregations have spent a significant amount of their own money on the upfront costs – something they wouldn’t have had to do for the PPA.

The grant program ends in June. We’re still recruiting churches. It’s thrilling to be able to catalyze real reductions in carbon emissions early in this critical decade. We are collecting energy use data from the participating churches so we can compare them to the baselines submitted with their grant proposals, and see how much we’ve accomplished together to operate more sustainably. I will keep you posted!

This story reflects the author’s experience. It does not represent ESRAG’s position on political policy or religion.