Religious institutions say infrastructure funds will help model sustainability

A $50 million slice of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill will go toward making nonprofits and religious institutions more energy efficient, but community leaders think that this program could have economic and environmental impacts far beyond that initial sum. 

“Having a green project can spur other developments in the community, and a church or synagogue is well placed to have that bully pulpit and expand the roots of what's a relatively modest $50 million program at this point,” Stephan Kline, associate vice president for public policy at the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), told The Hill.

The $50 million in question — folded into the infrastructure bill from the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act sponsored by Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharGOP Sen. Braun says abortion laws should be left up to states Klobuchar says 'best way' to protect abortion rights is to codify Roe v. Wade into law Sunday shows preview: Multiple states detect cases of the omicron variant MORE (D-Minn.) and John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenEquilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by Southern Company — Native solar startups see business as activism Religious institutions say infrastructure funds will help model sustainability House passes legislation to strengthen federal cybersecurity workforce MORE (R-N.D.) — will enable nonprofit groups like faith-based organizations, youth centers and schools to apply for grants of up to $200,000 to make their buildings more energy efficient. That grant money would go toward upgrading existing infrastructure, like HVAC systems, lights, doors and windows. 

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The Energy secretary has one year from the date of enactment to establish the grant rewards program, according to the bill. To be eligible, applicants will need to demonstrate the energy savings that would be achieved, the cost effectiveness of using energy-efficient materials and financial need.  

“It may not look exactly the same when the secretary rolls it out,” Kline said. “They can, in theory, add requirements. They're not really supposed to take away requirements, but you never know exactly what happens.” 

The text of the infrastructure bill states that the upgrades must involve “energy-efficiency material” — or a material whose installation “results in a reduction in use by a nonprofit organization of energy or fuel” — and neither specifically includes nor excludes renewable systems at this point. 

Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center — the public policy arm of the Orthodox Jewish organization — was responsible for the first draft of the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act, which he wrote 10 years ago.  

“The mission of our organization is to advance the interests of our community, particularly our synagogues and our day schools,” Diament told The Hill. “But we typically do that in a way that's in coalition with others and in service of what we think is the common good.” 

In addition to the JFNA and the OU Advocacy Center, the coalition supporting the legislation’s passage grew to include a long list of faith-based groups around the country. 

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“We knew that for synagogues as well as churches and others, the most expensive item on their budget is often utility and energy costs,” Diament said. “We've all become more and more aware of the need to conserve energy and have buildings operate more efficiently to be good stewards of the environment.”

Collectively, nonprofits spend billions each year on energy costs — typically about 5 to 7 percent of their annual budgets, according to the JFNA. But because energy efficiency incentives are usually structured as tax credits and rebates, tax-exempt nonprofits are not able to take advantage of them.

“If you're a nonprofit organization, you cannot access a tax credit,” Diament agreed.

Faith-based groups are uniquely equipped, according to Diament, to model behaviors to their congregants like increasing energy efficiency. 

“That modeling is very powerful, and we do think will influence people to think about these issues in their homes and in their businesses,” he added. 

Darcy Hirsh, the JFNA’s head of legislative affairs, echoed these sentiments, stressing that while these projects do come with cost-saving incentives, they also enable faith-based institutions to show “their congregants that they're doing it because it's the right thing to do and it's in line with their religious values.”

The funds will also be worth more than their face value because they will act as matching grants in practice, according to Diament. While the grants will pay for the “hardware” — the HVAC system, the windows — they will not cover the labor and installation costs, he explained.

“We did it that way to effectively make it tantamount to a matching grant,” he said. “So this money is going further than if it was paying for a whole project.”

Diament said he and his colleagues also expect that the program to be oversubscribed, and they plan to continue working with the bill’s sponsors and coalition partners to expand the funding in the future. 

While the Department of Energy still has a year to formalize the program, the JFNA is already planning to begin promoting it among Jewish Community Centers, synagogues, youth movements and camps next month, Hirsh and Kline said.

As the umbrella group for 146 Jewish federations around the country, the JFNA does not have official public policy on climate change, but Hirsh said that “sustainability is a priority for the Jewish community broadly and for the federation system.”

The UJA-Federation of New York, for example, invested $2 million in the Jewish sustainability organization Hazon’s Jewish Greening Fellowship, which funded renewable energy and energy efficiency projects in 13 New York-area synagogues from 2009 to 2014.

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“We certainly want to model for the community best practices and workable ways that they can move forward on these initiatives,” Hirsh said.  

Momentum has been building for sustainability ventures in the Catholic community as well. In 2020, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, in partnership with the firm IGS Solar, launched a 2-megawatt solar project in the nation’s capital, according to Anthony Granado, vice president of government relations at Catholic Charities.

For the Catholic community, he explained, the inclusion of the Nonprofit Energy Efficiency Act in the bipartisan bill “speaks to what Pope FrancisPope FrancisPope on Europe's migrant crisis: 'stop this shipwreck of civilization' Pope calls on young people to protect environment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Gosar censured as GOP drama heightens MORE has been encouraging Catholics, and actually all people of good will, to live out in harmony with the created order, with creation — our common home.” 

The policy, Granado added, will help Catholic charities and churches “live that out in a very tangible way,” while helping both reduce energy consumption and energy costs. 

“Not only will it serve the agencies themselves, but by reducing energy costs of agencies, that money then can go back into the agency that can help the clients that are served by Catholic Charities,” Granado said. 

Another organization involved in shaping the legislation, the YMCA of the USA, will also be looking at how the grants could help specific facilities benefit from such savings, Kelly Kennai, senior director for communications and advocacy engagement for the organization, told The Hill. 

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With more money saved on energy costs, the facilities will have more resources to invest in their neighbors while providing a model for community members who tend to have “strong relationships with their local Ys,” according to Kennai.

Kennai added that facilities can impart the importance of sustainability to their youth members, who then may be eager to transmit such behaviors to their parents at home, she added. 

“As a primarily facilities-based organization, being energy efficient in our buildings, really is both environmentally critical and fiscally important,” Kennai said. “It's really a win-win for the environment and for the mission.” 

This story was updated at 6:13 p.m.