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Arlington church wins national energy-saving award

Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ sign: "POWERED BY THE SUN"
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VPM News Focal Point
A century-old church shows its faith by going carbon neutral.

It began with a campuswide energy consumption audit that highlighted ways the 100-year-old church building was wasting energy.

As John Overholt flips a light switch at Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ, it illuminates a long hallway filled with a variety of long-lasting, environmentally friendly lights.

The self-described handyman swapped all of the ceiling lights out himself. Testing different light temperatures and wattage, each light is carefully marked with a fluorescent yellow sign that describes its bulb, power, color and output.

Overholt calls it his “lighting lab.”

It’s part of a decade-long effort to update all 450 lights in the century-old Arlington County church.

Overholt says he takes after his father, an engineer. He described his lighting experiments as autopsies because he “likes to know how things work.”

He initially got the idea to swap out all of Rock Spring’s light fixtures from a 2007 magazine article that gave advice on reducing lighting costs.

“The first thing you should look at is lights that are always on and not sanctuary lights,” he said. “You only turn those on a couple hours a week.”

The church’s exit lights, which were always on, had a relatively high wattage and needed new batteries several times a year. According to Overholt, replacing those were a simple fix

As bulbs burnt out throughout the church campus, he replaced them with lower wattage and more energy-efficient options. Overholt also installed a solar tube in a hallway with stairs. The tube allowed sunlight to light the stairs during the day, so parishioners didn’t have to rely on electricity.

Rock Spring’s lighting project is just one aspect of its efforts to reduce energy consumption and become a net zero campus. The work has earned the church national recognition, too: Rock Spring won the Energy Saver prize in the annual Interfaith Power & Light 2022 Cool Congregation Challenge.

Green Accelerator Project

“I love the fact that this church is always at the front of the line,” said parishioner Jerry Hartz . “From civil rights in the 1950s with the first desegregated library, to helping found the first homeless shelter, the first food bank — social mission is embedded in this church.”

Hartz, who worked on legislative issues on Capitol Hill, said he’d been struggling with how he could help address climate change for years.

“What can you do with something like climate change? It's so big,” Hartz said. “As an individual, it's just so overwhelming. And so, you have to break it down. And that's kind of the way we looked at this whole thing.”

In 2016, Rock Spring began what it called the Green Accelerator Project to address what it could regarding climate change.

It began with a campuswide energy consumption audit that highlighted ways the 100-year-old church building was wasting energy.

“In some places, there was literally nothing between the inside and the outside except the drop ceiling,” said Hartz, who also co-chaired the project. “So, we were heating and cooling the outdoors.”

The Rev. Laura Martin, Rock Spring’s associate pastor and the project co-chair, said the audit provided a helpful guide.

“You can imagine the tremendous waste, not only waste in terms of climate impact, but waste in terms of what it cost,” Martin said.

In addition to swapping out the lights and installing insulation, the church has added solar panels and made window upgrades.

“We have cut by 80% the amount of natural gas usage in terms of HVAC within a year,” Hartz said.

Rock Spring’s leaders say it is now saving nearly $33,000 annually in utility bills. They believe the positive impact on the climate and overall savings made the $405,000 cost for the upgrades worth the investment.

“We realized that over the long term — and we’re talking like 20 years — we actually save money,” Martin said. “And are better stewards for the earth and the climate.”

While Overholt said his main goal in swapping out the lights was to reduce the church’s utility costs, he is pleased that his work is also having a positive impact on the environment.

“I’ve had satisfaction with getting things done here,” Overholt said. “I want to tell people how they can reduce their carbon footprint without having to change their lifestyle in a major way.”

Since being named one of the six “Cool Congregations,” Rock Spring has gotten calls from churches around the country asking for advice on making spaces more energy efficient.

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