Energy usage is the elephant in the room; by far, it is the largest producer of carbon in a small commercial building, which is the category assigned to most synagogue buildings. There are a few overarching approaches to cutting carbon emissions in building that are universal. However, the details and how one approaches solving the energy equation is dependent on state regulations, programs, and available grants. Some states are generous and encouraging, while others – not so much.
Solar and geothermal are both clean, renewable energy sources and ideally, all congregations will aim for these technological solutions. However, discussing solar is putting the cart before the horse. The building is brought up to maximum efficiency first to reduce the carbon footprint effectively.
The rule among environmental engineers is: a watt not used is a watt not generated.
The first step is to order a benchmark audit of the building. The second step is to use the conclusions of the audit to bring the building up to peak efficiency, which will also bring down the energy bills for the synagogue immediately. The last step is to consider clean renewable energy.
The energy assessment involves the building envelope and the mechanical systems within the building. In the lingo, this assessment is called a benchmark audit. Because the audits can cost several thousand dollars, only state-certified environmental engineers should be used. (These audits may be covered wholly or in part by state grants and programs.) The audit will make clear what work needs to be done on the exterior and interior of the building to bring it up to maximum efficiency.
Easy fixes that do not cost much money may be motion detector light switches, LED lightbulbs and new gaskets around doors. Upgrading lighting ballasts and fixtures are not expensive either. Old boilers that have been nursed to squeeze every last penny out of them come at a terrific carbon cost and even more, cost far too much to run for the BTUs that the system puts out in its decaying state of inefficiency. A benchmark audit will lay out how quickly new mechanicals will pay for themselves in reduced energy costs.
In the last ten years, the cost of solar panels has dropped by 75 percent while the efficiency has climbed to unexpected levels. New hardware technology allows placement of solar panels on flat roofs without piercing the roofing membrane. For all of these amazing advancements, 80 percent of small commercial buildings are not candidates for solar panels on the roof. The reasons vary. Common reasons include not having available space facing east or south, shade trees blocking the sunlight, or even historic designation rules that disallow any exterior improvement. Panels can be placed in an open area on the ground or on top of unneeded parking spaces.
The federal program that helps pay for solar installation comes in the form of tax credits. Houses of worship do not pay taxes though, making the credits useless. There are philanthropic minded entities in some states that will purchase the tax credits from the non-profit and reimburse the institution in cash at half value. Whether states have incentive programs and whether those programs are available to religious institutions is dependent upon the individual state regulations.
The worst drawback to solar installation is the local utilities. These entities have convinced state governments to ban the connection of solar generation directly to the building. The electricity is sent to the grid and credited to the owner on their electric bill. The typical argument is that solar going on during the day and off at night destabilizes the grid, which is nonsense. Digital technology smooths surges and spikes now, and effortlessly switches between sources when necessary. There is advocacy work to be done.
Geothermal, using the interior heat of the planet buried tens or hundreds of feet below the property, is a fairly new technology, but it is robust. Wells must be drilled around the property and a room set aside for the mechanical guts of the system. The cost for installation is higher than solar.