Energy featured

How a small church in a Vermont town addresses climate change

April 2, 2024

I’m not programmed for despair, so when I can’t sleep at night for worry about our kids and theirs in the face of climate catastrophe, I cook up solutions. Little things that, some would say, won’t amount to anything. But trying is better than turning a back on crisis, hands tossed up in resignation.

We do try. Back in 2015, I had solar panels mounted on the south-facing roof of my old Vermont village home after Efficiency Vermont conducted a full audit and plugged up my energy leaks.

My partner and I eschew plastic; we cluster trips to town to get more bang for the gas buck; he drives a Prius, I’m researching “best E-cars.” We use e-bikes for erranding and have downsized our expectations of where we, in our early 70s, might want to go for one big trip. Hopping a train to the Pacific Northwest is winning out over flying to Europe.

A couple years ago a project launched at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, Vt., aimed at making the whole church campus– church, education wing, and rectory– powered 110% by clean, renewable energy by 2030. I jumped in to pledge—and I pledged more than I could afford and more than I ever have to anything. Others did, too, and the fundraising goal of $800K for Phase One of the Building Hope for the Earth (BHE) project was exceeded within five months. I guess people want to do something—anything—to dodge the despair and ameliorate the situation.

At its annual meeting in January, St. Michael’s community received an update from parishioner Cary Gaunt, who provided visionary leadership for the initiative:

“We never know how a seed we plant will grow, but that should never stop us from planting seeds. A seed planted as a dream way back in 2008, when church members began expressing interest in addressing the climate crisis and living our stewardship commitments through tangible actions, began to germinate with vigor in the fall of 2021.”

That October, St. Michael’s rector, Rev. Mary Lindquist, formed a team to explore the potential of switching to solar power for the church campus.

“None of us,” Gaunt continues, “could have imagined that the seed would blossom into a whole-church energy transformation, a strong commitment to pursue an end to our reliance on fossil fuels, and a transition to 110% clean, renewable energy by 2030, tithing 10% of our energy back to the community. Nor could we imagine the generosity of the parish in supporting with time, talent, and financial resources such an audacious vision. […]

“We decided to name the project Building Hope for the Earth,” Gaunt explained, “because hope is so desperately needed by so many during this time of global upheaval, social and environmental injustice, and the climate crisis. Earth’s cries grow louder every day as evidenced with even a cursory glance at the headlines or an attentiveness to what is happening in our own communities. The cries are many. Those who hear are few. Those who hear and then decide to sow seeds of hope are fewer still. Climate prophet and Vermonter Bill McKibben says that it is “high time for the human heart to do its job” in responding to these crises.”

The BHE project involved installation of a new roof—to replace an irreparably leaky one– adding insulation, changing to more energy efficient light fixtures, transitioning oil heat to electric mini splits, and adding solar panels to the roof of the church and of the rectory. Phase One was completed in early March when the last solar panel was installed.

“[This],” Gaunt explains, “gets us a long way toward achieving our vision and goal, but there is more to go. After a full year of using the mini splits, we will have a clear idea of how much additional solar energy we need to generate to achieve 110%. We also gathered ideas for next steps at an all-church celebration of the project in October. Each idea presented is another seed of possibility for the church, from creating pollinator gardens to tangible ways to better support and engage our broader community. Following nature’s wisdom, the BHE Team will gather energy through stillness, like the seeds in the ground, for the remainder of the winter. We look forward to reengaging with the church community come late spring to see what is emerging and to roll up our sleeves to build more hope for the earth and our community.”  Phase Two of BHE begins later this year.

As I walk and bike and, OK, drive around these days, I keep looking for big open south-facing roofs on other non-profits, on businesses, on homes. With all the incentives out there and the clock ticking, it seems a no-brainer: Go solar—or wind or water. Whatever it takes.

Annie Landenberger

Annie Landenberger is a free-lance writer, theater multi-hyphenate, and vocalist in Southern Vermont.  A native of Manhattan, she’s made a life of working in/supporting the arts-- teaching, directing, performing, and writing about the lively, literary, and visual arts.