In the depths of the recession, when budgets were tighter than usual, a group of churches in Washington, D.C., noticed energy bills were eating up huge chunks of their budgets.
“The huge amount our institutions were paying for electricity just astounded with us,” says Martin Trimble, lead organizer with the Washington Interfaith Network, an organizing group affiliated with the Industrial Areas Foundation. WIN, which had developed relationships with churches in the area over the years, started searching for strategies to bring those energy bills down. The group presented church leaders with an idea: Would they be interested in purchasing electricity as a group in order to reduce costs?
With the help of a local group called Groundswell, 11 churches negotiated a group purchasing agreement in 2010 that saved them, collectively, tens of thousands of dollars on the cost of clean energy, according to Sam Witherbee, Groundswell’s lead organizer on the initiative. By the second round of purchasing, the 37 participating organizations were able to switch to 100 percent renewable energy and still save hundreds of thousands of dollars. The most recent round of purchasing included more than 100 groups from in Washington D.C. and Maryland, not just churches, but “Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist institutions, charter schools, Head Start centers, food banks, low income housing organizations, labor organizations…all working and purchasing together as part of a same group,” Witherbee says.
Organizing the group purchase agreement was a collective effort from the start, according to those involved. WIN and Groundswell also relied on the legal expertise of Betts & Holt, one of whose attorneys belong to a participating congregation.
Washington and Maryland both have deregulated electricity markets, which means electricity customers can shop around for an energy supplier. By pooling their purchasing power, the nonprofits were able to negotiate better rates than they might have wrangled on their own.
“A lot of businesses and governments do this very well,” Witherbee says. “They’ve been getting these rates for awhile, but the community’s been left out of the benefits of deregulated markets, especially those small institutions that might not have the staff capacity or research capacity.” Now, community institutions have been able to tap into the same savings.
Tom Knoll, the pastor at First Trinity Lutheran Church, says his congregation has saved around two or three thousand dollars per year in each round of the negotiations. He and other leaders were pleasantly surprised that they were able to afford to support renewable energy. “We thought it was going to be quite expensive,” he says. “But it was .2 cents or .1 cents more, which adds only four or five hundred dollars to our bill per year.” And participating in the clean energy program has inspired the congregation to take on more environmental initiatives at the church and in their homes.
Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, says joining the group in later rounds was an easy decision for her organization “There’s no sacrifice involved here,” she says. “We’re not losing anything in terms of reliability. It’s the power of the collective, and it really is advancing energy that’s better for our community.”
The organizations involved in the initiative are now looking to jointly negotiate contracts for needs like natural gas and waste management. They’ve also been able to negotiate better rates for individual members of the groups.
“I’ve been teasing people—you can not only become a member of our church and get eternal life, but you can also save money on your energy bills,” Knoll says.