When people think about fighting climate change and saving the environment, religious groups may not immediately come to mind, but Vermont Interfaith Power and Light is doing just that.
The group recently awarded matching grants for energy efficiency projects through the Katy Gerke Memorial Program to three local churches, St. John Vianney Church and Ascension Lutheran Church in South Burlington, and Shelburne United Methodist Church.
Interfaith Power and Light is a nationwide network of over 10,000 congregations with affiliated programs in 38 states. Vermont became affiliated in 2004, operating as a nonprofit under the umbrella of the Vermont Ecumenical Council for the first four years, before becoming incorporated in 2008 as Vermont Interfaith Power and Light (VTIPL). Staffed mostly by volunteers, Coordinator Betsy Hardy is the only paid employee, working part-time three days a week.
In 2014, Hardy received an unexpected phone call at the Vermont headquarters in Richmond. Dr. Paul Gerke had recently lost his wife to cancer the year prior and he was interested in starting a program with VTIPL in her memory. The Katy Gerke Memorial Program gives out up to $20,000 a year to Christian churches statewide that are looking to improve their energy efficiency.
So far, VTIPL has been able to approve all of the applications they’ve received since its induction in 2016, at least partially. Sometimes their selection committee decides that some of the proposed work is not related to the cause and deducts from the total amount requested accordingly. This year, however, the program is picking up steam and the committee is quickly approaching their funds limit even though it’s only March. With a rolling application process, the earlier in the year people apply, the better the chances of getting approved.
The energy project application requests a full description of the planned work, including total cost, plus the name, contact information, and qualifications of the selected contractor. VTIPL also requires that the churches undergo a full-scale energy audit within two years of applying. A separate grant for an audit is available. VTIPL offers energy assessments free of charge to anyone seeking them in the state thanks to one of their board members, but there is a difference between an assessment and an audit.
“The assessments are good and people are grateful for the service, but they don’t include blower door tests or infrared scanning, the kinds of things that contractors do with a full-scale audit,” Hardy said. “For this program, if we are going to be giving away thousands of dollars, we want to make sure they know exactly where the work is most needed.”
Local churches benefit
Of the three local grant recipients in 2018, Shelburne United Methodist received the largest matching grant at just over $7,500 for their $15,000 insulation project. The church used the funds for insulation in their attic area, the space between the sanctuary and their fellowship hall, as well as insulation and weather sealing in the basement.
At St. John Vianney Catholic Church in South Burlington, new LED lighting brightens up the sanctuary. Some parishioners may not have noticed the change, since the same decorative fixtures are still in use, with only the light bulbs switched out. The total cost was just over $1,900, for which they received a matching grant of $959.
Ascension Lutheran Church in South Burlington has received two grants, one in 2016 and the second in 2018. The 2016 grant covered half the cost of a full-scale energy audit, while the latter was used to update the heating units in one of the church’s wings, a $9,000 project of which $6,000 was directly related to energy efficiency, earning them a $3,000 matching grant.
“We tore out old, very inefficient box heaters and put in new ones that not only work better, but they also change the way the hot water circulates ,” said Sam Swanson, a VTIPL board member and the head of the energy committee at Ascension Lutheran, explained, “so now it’s not running all the time, but only when it’s called for”
Hardy calls Ascension Lutheran a “model church,” which she hopes other congregations will aim to emulate.
“We have taken a whole bunch of steps since 2005 and, cumulatively, they have resulted in pretty significant energy savings at the church over time,” Samson said. “We’ve reduced our carbon footprint by about, I would say, 55 percent.”
But he’s not done yet.
“We really want to be carbon-free, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Samson added. “As you get more and more done, the next step gets harder and harder. We’re working on the hard stuff now.”