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By Tom Holmes
Three years ago the boiler at Euclid Methodist Church gave out. The congregation turned what most churches would call a financial crisis into an opportunity to put their money where their ecological convictions were.
Up until 2011 Euclid Methodist had been doing the things most congregations in the Oak Park/River Forest area have been doing to "save the planet" — recycling, using energy-efficient light bulbs, washing dishes instead of using paper plates. It was all very ecologically correct, but the impact felt minimal.
Dick Alton, chair of Euclid's Green Action Team, smiled as he recalled how momentum to install a geothermal heating and cooling system grew. Shortly after moving to Oak Park in 2006, he showed Al Gore's film Inconvenient Truth and only five people showed up to watch.
Then the boiler gave out and suddenly the question of going geothermal had a tangible immediacy that motivated almost everyone to engage.
"The boiler giving out, that was a real turning point," Alton said.
A few members suggested the congregation view the breakdown as an opportunity to explore alternative sources of heating. Alton was also a member of the Interfaith Green Network, through which he came in contact with Mac Robinet, a member of Oak Park's Commission on Energy and Environment.
Robinet had credibility. A retired physicist, he and his wife had installed a geothermal system at their home and were thinking about going solar as well.
"Mac is fabulous in explaining how complex technology works," said Alton.
Robinet explains that a geothermal system warms a building in the winter months by transferring heat from the ground to the building and doing the reverse in the summer, taking heat from the building and putting it in the ground. In Euclid Methodist's case, that happened via 52 deep wells (150 feet) beneath their parking lot.
Finding someone who could describe geothermal in language lay people could understand was essential, said Alton, but taking on a project that would cost $350,000 would require more than understandable words.
Receiving a $50,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation, thanks to the expertise of a Euclid member helped sell the project to the congregation. So did a six-month-long series of congregational meetings led by Pastor Marti Scott, answering every question in order to secure pledges of financial support.
Alton reports that since installing the system in November of 2011, church records show that energy consumption has been reduced by 81%, and their energy bill by 30%. That, plus the fact that only $50,000 remains to be paid off on their loan from Community Bank, made the proposal to install solar panels later this year more or less a no-brainer.
"I ran into a company [Renewable Energy Alternative] that would give us a $15,000 manufacturer's rebate," said Alton, "and the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation is giving us a grant for $76,032, the result of which is that Euclid will be paying only $35,688 for the 132 photovoltaic panels on the roof of our education wing."
The system will produce 40,000 kilowatt hours annually and reduce greenhouse emissions to the tune of 687 tons of carbon dioxide.
"It's like planting 27,472 trees," he said.
The other payback for installing the photovoltaic system, according to Alton, will be that the congregation will save $146,366 over the next 25 years with $466 in average monthly savings, and a payback period of nine years. The rate of return will be 11.6% on investment and the saving in electricity will be 27%, which will cover the cost of the increased electricity consumed by the geothermal system. The congregation may even be credited for surplus energy generated, which occasionally would be put back into the grid.
Pastor Scott appreciates that going green will ease the stress on her congregation's budget, but they have an ulterior motive.
"We're doing this as a way of honoring the God of creation and fulfilling our ministry of caring for the earth," she said. "That's primary. We have come to understand that salvation is not only about humans but that it is really about all of creation. We have set off these gigantic changes in climate. We have brought a judgment on the Earth by the way we've lived and our excesses, so helping people to become better stewards, to care for the Earth is a way to give the [planet], which is a gift from God, a chance at life."
The congregation's goal, she added, is to "get to the point where the cost of utilities does not deprive the church of doing mission and ministry. We are as committed to South Sudan Voices of Hope, Zibabwe, the PADS program here, and to senior ministry at the Oak Park Arms as we are to care of the Earth."
Alton's theology is similar.
"We're not going to solve our global warming problem with technical solutions," he declared. "We're so into consumerism. How do we get people to have a religious understanding that allows them to step back and instead of saying, 'How much money can I make?' ask, 'How do we care for this planet?'
"We have to go back and ask how we can simplify our lives. It's not science. At the heart of the question of caring for the Earth is developing a viable lifestyle."