Electric Witness

September 1998 Green Cross magazine

Electric meters are as prominent in churches as pulpits — usually one per facility.  Understanding sermons, however, may be easier than understanding electric meters.  Pulpits are located in sacred space — well-cared-for rooms with colors and cleanliness.  Meters are usually located in profane space amid dirt, dust and dim light.

Electric meters are the cash registers for electric utilities.  Each month, the utility usually reads your electric meter, which belongs to them, and then sends you a bill.  Personally, I can’t wait for them to read my meter only once a month; I read it each morning keeping score of the amount of electricity, measured in kilowatthours, we used the day before.

If churches read their meters each morning and evening, even for a few days, the congregations can learn lots of important information.  For example, we could learn how much electricity is consumed overnight by things like outside lighting, soda machines and electric water coolers.  I know of several congregations who use more electricity when no one is in the building than when it is occupied.  Outside lighting and fan motors have been the culprits.  Reducing overnight electric use is easier than tampering with use during occupied times.

By reading electric meters each evening and morning, we also learn how much electricity is consumed during the day.  If someone reads the meter consistently, we can learn how much electricity is consumed normally and how much is consumed on that day when the day care is on a field trip, or when a tenant does not use office space.  This helps determine dollars for mission and charges for rental space.  The same applies to gas and water meters

Most electric utilities insist that their customers have the obligation to choose among various electric rates.  Congregations often overlook options of off-peak, electric heat, or non-demand rates.  Generally, merely asking if your utility if you are on the right rate is all it takes to get cheaper electricity.

Also, congregations have the responsibility to file for exemption from state sales taxes.  Such exemption is often overlooked; more than one in five congregations in and around Philadelphia pay state sales tax on electricity. Why?  I think the electric bills get filed in the treasurer’s box and are paid without analysis.  As a result, few congregations know how much electricity they consume.  Without such knowledge, we cannot measure the success of any campaign to lower electric use.  This is like driving a car without a speedometer or odometer.

Many states are deregulating their electric utilities.   This means that the generation of electricity is no longer captive to the utilities. Congregations in Boston can purchase electricity from Los Angeles.  You can imagine that the record-keeping in such transactions is more intricate than a concordance in Greek.

Deregulation can bring substantial savings.  In Philadelphia, for example, the Interfaith Coalition on Energy worked with the Building Owners and Managers Association to include the electric loads of congregations, mostly off-peak and non-cooling, with the complementary electric loads of major office buildings. The result is an over 20% reduction in electric prices at virtually no cost to the congregations.  As an interfaith organization, we can negotiate on behalf of 2,000 plus congregations of all faiths.  Our main goal now is to encourage congregations to take advantage of the deal — no easy task.

The generation of electricity usually creates air pollution or nuclear waste. In a regulated power market, congregations can purchase more expensive but cleaner electricity.  The roof of the building which houses the office of the Interfaith Coalition, now supports a new 2,700-watt photovoltaic system which generates more power than we use.  I get a kick out of watching our electric meter spin backwards. We are now negotiating to sell solar-generated electricity.  This system will never pay fo r itself, but we thought it was the right thing to do.  I saw a picture of a church in Sacramento that installed a much large system than ours.

So, as you surf the net for sermon material, tap the keys for church correspondence, flip a switch to light a room or twist the knob of an air conditioning thermostat, remember that each electron is counted by the meter in the basement.  To gain an understanding of your stewardship of electricity, the place to begin is standing in front of that meter and witnessing its spinning disk.  To slow its spin, turn things off, and purchase more efficient end uses, like lamps, motors and refrigerators.  If it must spin, buy your electrons at the lowest cost so you can spend the saved money in better ways.

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