Walls made out of straw? A solar victory overcoal? These aren’t lofty environmental dreams or fantasies of the Big Bad Wolf. These are just some of the ways Interfaith Power & Light’s (IPL) Cool Congregations Challenge winners take action to respond to the threat of climate change.

“It’s very inspiring to see so many congregations stepping up in response to climate change, especially this year as global leaders prepare to meet in Paris to discuss the reduction of global carbon pollution and the climate crisis,” said Rev. Canon Sally Bingham, founder and president of IPL. “IPL’s Cool Congregations are leaders. They’re not waiting until 2030 or 2050 to make a difference — they’re showing us that cutting emissions by 50% or more is not only possible now, but many have even gone carbon neutral.”

Having Fun With Sustainability

Group of people siting on haybales inside a house made of hay.

The Eco Center at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas is an excellent example of the myriad of energy-saving techniques that are possible now, a 5,300 square-foot green building out of straw, paper mache, beer bottles, old conveyor belts, and rocks.

The Eco Center at Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center in Little Rock, Arkansas is an excellent example of the myriad of energy-saving techniques that are possible now. It won the Energy Saver Award for creating a 5,300 square-foot green building out of straw, paper mache, beer bottles, old conveyor belts, and rocks. (Yes, a center made out of straw that even the hungriest wolf couldn’t blow down!)

The Eco Center, which opened in March 2014, is a product of the hard work and creative genius of Rev. David Gill, Steve Wilson, and a team of dedicated volunteers. To construct the straw walls — a natural and biodegradable material that provides excellent insulation — they got some expert advice from StrawBale.com. And AmeriCorps* NCCC volunteers helped create a paper mill for the “S’more Floor,” named for the colors of the paper mache floor which resemble graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate. (Check out the video here to learn more about the paper mill.)

The other rooms in the Eco Center are also named for their floors. The Rubber Room’s floor is made from salvaged conveyor belts from the Arkansas Kraft paper mill and Granite Mountain Quarry. The Beer Bottle Bottom room is named for the several thousand beer bottles that are inserted into its floor. And the Rock Around the Clock room gave new life to the thick rocks that maintained the terrace around Ferncliff’s old pool. These fun and whimsical rooms prove that waste is never necessary.

“About 10 years ago we embraced the idea that we were going to make sustainability and going green a signature of our camp,” said Gill. “We got more intentional. We were semi-green to begin with, but we decided to turn up the heat to make it one of the things that defines us.”

And sustainability is definitely one of the things that defines Ferncliff. Besidesthe Eco Center, there’s a solar-powered bus that picks campers up and the kitchen gets its vegetables from the camp’s “Garden of Eatin’.” The camp hosts Solar Under the Sun’s solar school, which trains volunteers to install solar systems in communities that lack reliable electrical power as part of mission work. There’s a robust recycling program, fair trade products, and geo-thermal energy for the buildings.

Although Arkansas is called the “Natural State,” it’s not often known for being green. But this only makes Ferncliff more deserving of IPL’s award — it’s a place where kids, teens, and adults can experience an environmentalism that’s fresh, fun, and economical.

“The environmental movement is a little slow here compared to other states,” said Sharmel Roussel, executive director of Arkansas IPL. “But we’re pressing on.”

Standing Up for Stewardship

As a solar-powered church in the middle of coal country, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in West Virginia is no stranger to pressing on in a political climate that's less welcoming to renewable energy.

Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia is no stranger to pressing on in a political climate that’s less welcoming to renewable energy. IPL’s Renewable Role Model winner not only constructed anew solar installation on its church roof; it launched a new financing model that makes solar possible for churches and non-profits in one of the most coal-dependent states in America.

Working with Solar Holler, the church used the energy rebates of nearly 100 local families and businesses to raise funds for the solar project. Mosaic Power, which responds to the electric needs of its water heaters in real-time to make them more efficient, pays property owners $100 per tank per year for participation. Community members who have Mosaic water heaters agreed to have their payments support the church’s solar project.

In the end, the church didn’t just help the environment by installing solar panels. Because each Mosaic water heater eliminates as much carbon pollution as six solar panels, the church’s funding scheme also had a positive climate impact.

This is quite an accomplishment given coal’s power in West Virginia. In February, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a bill repealing the state’s renewable energy standard, which would have required major utilities to get at least 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025. The repeal was a victory for the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, which has been trying to pass similar laws in Kansas and Ohio. West Virginia was the group’s first victory, however, perhaps because the coal industry is so big in the state.

While some might find the political climate intimidating, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church is rising to the challenge and inspiring others.

“The project has been very important because it’s West Virginia,” said Than Hitt, a congregation member and volunteer with the solar project committee. “We’ve had to move forward with solar in the absence of leadership from Charleston. And it makes sense that churches are leading the way here because, like all movements, sustainability starts with the heart first.”

The church’s love for Creation has inspired another congregation in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to go solar. And the community members who came together to fund the solar project have also come together to protect net metering in West Virginia and respond to legislative threats.

A Collection of Inspirational Work

The stories behind the Cool Congregations Challenge award winners are all inspiring. St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Indiana won the Sacred Grounds Steward award for turning the 2.5 acres of turf grass surrounding the church building into a native habitat that reduces carbon emissions and prevents runoff. The Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in North Carolina won the Community Inspiration award for helping forty disadvantaged families reduce their carbon footprint and save money on energy bills. And the Drepung Gomang Center for Engaging Compassion in Kentucky won the Cool Planner award for planning a major energy efficiency upgrade and modeling the link between engaged compassion and sustainability.

There are also numerous runners-up that have been instrumental to protecting Creation and communities. (It must have been hard to pick the winners!)

“We wanted to honor these congregations because they are truly leaders in climate action, and their stories can inspire others,” said Susan Stephenson, executive director of IPL. “Sometimes it can feel like our individual actions don’t amount to much, but when we see the collective work we are doing together, we know that we are making a real impact.”

Crossposted from EdenKeeper.org.

is an organic-eating, energy-saving naturalist who composts and tree hugs in her spare time. I have a background in environmental law, lobbying, and field work. I believe in God; however, I do not call myself a Christian or a Jew or a member of any religion. I am merely someone who finds a spiritual connection to all humans and the environment. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and .


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