What would your church do if it found a way to save thousands of dollars in annual energy costs?

That’s what happened to Hurstbourne Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, when it upgraded light bulbs and thermostats to more energy-efficient models, lowering its gas and electric bills by five thousand dollars annually. And it used part of the savings to increase gifts to missions and ministries through the Cooperative Program, raising its contributions from 7 to 8.5 percent of undesignated receipts with plans for 10 percent within five years.

Pastor Mike O’Neal marvels at the potential Kingdom impact if every Southern Baptist church would examine its energy costs, make upgrades, and pass some of the savings along through CP.

“We’re just being better stewards,” O’Neal said of his congregation. “Why pay more to the power and light companies than you have to? Now we can devote those resources to Kingdom purposes.”

Hurstbourne’s journey toward savings began in 2009 when a local engineering firm proposed an energy upgrade. The proposal’s two main elements were replacing old thermostats with programmable digital ones and outfitting light fixtures with LED bulbs.

By expending eight thousand dollars in up front costs, the congregation, which averages four hundred in worship, reduced its annual energy costs from $50,000 to $45,000—despite an increase in rates. The initial investment was paid for within two years.

“The savings of energy costs is giving us the flexibility to expand our missions support,” O’Neal said.

Hurstbourne is not an isolated case, according to Andy Susemichel, president of E-Max, Inc., the engineering firm that guided the congregation through its upgrades. He said churches of all sizes have opportunities to increase their energy efficiency, pass the savings along to missions, and be better stewards of natural resources in the process.

Susemichel listed three main ways the average church can save on energy, though he encouraged energy audits to determine the specific needs of each congregation:

Install automatic thermostats that adjust the temperature of buildings when they are unused. Heat should be turned to sixty degrees during non-use time during the winter and air conditioning to between eighty and eighty-five degrees during the summer, he said. Each automatic thermostat costs approximately one hundred dollars.

Replace incandescent light bulbs with florescent ones. Incandescent lights use about ten times as much electricity as florescent, according to Susemichel. And while incandescent lights last four to five hundred hours, the newest florescent lights last up to thirty thousand hours.

Replace old boilers with newer condensing boilers. “A lot of churches have old boilers that are very inefficient,” he said. “Normally they’re running about fifty percent efficiency. And so half the gas they use is wasted where newer condensing boilers will have an efficiency . . . of ninety percent or more.”

Steam boilers are particularly inefficient and should be replaced as soon as possible, according to Susemichel.

A church with a sanctuary that seats two to three hundred people and average attendance of 150 will likely save one-third of its energy costs every month by making these three changes, Susemichel said, adding that often it will take several years for the savings to offset the initial investment.

• Another way churches can save on their energy bills is to stagger the start times of their heating and air conditioning units, according to Philip Baker, building superintendent for the Southern Baptist Convention building in Nashville.

“Many utility companies charge churches what is called a ‘demand’ charge for electricity each month,” Baker said. The “demand” is an additional cost based on the greatest need of electricity at any given moment in the monthly billing cycle. Utility companies believe that commercial users, including churches, that require even brief power surges should pay a share of the costs associated with the ability to provide that power on demand.

“If a church turns on all of its air conditioning units at the same time on Saturday night or Sunday morning, the surge in energy needed for that start-up will drive up their energy costs for the entire month,” Baker said. By staggering the times their air conditioning or heating units power up through the use of programmable thermostats, the church should be able “to keep its ‘demand’ use at a lower level, saving a significant amount of money over time.”

Baker also suggested that churches with larger heating and air conditioning units consider adding a “freq”—a variable frequency drive motor—to further minimize the monthly “demand.” Many utility companies provide a free service to evaluate and make recommendation about a church’s energy usage.

Other simple cost-saving measures churches can take include lowering the temperature on the water heaters, unplugging refrigerated drinking fountains during the week, turning off copiers when not in use, and reducing lighting in hallways and after hours.

First Baptist Church of Sherman, Texas, received an immediate return on its investment of approximately $200,000 recently to upgrade its electrical, heating, and air conditioning systems.

Rather than use budgeted money to fund the upgrades, First Baptist raised the money through special gifts and received a grant of $130,000 from its energy supplier. It also renegotiated its contract with the power company, reducing the cost of electricity by two cents per kilowatt hour.

As a result, an energy bill of more than $10,000 in August 2011 reduced to about $5,500 in August 2012. The annual energy savings is expected to be $30,000—approximately twenty percent.

Though the congregation, which averages 450 in worship and has a $1.15 million budget, is still determining its exact savings each year, it has increased its missions budget by a half percent of its undesignated receipts and added funds to other ministries as well.

“If the 40,000 plus [SB] churches out there were able to realize a twenty percent savings on their utilities each year and even just a percent or two of that was to be dedicated to missions, it would make a huge difference,” Mike Lawson, pastor of First Baptist, said.

Local churches are not the only Southern Baptist organizations seeking to save on energy and pass the savings along to missions and ministries. State conventions and SBC entities are pursuing similar courses of action.

The California Southern Baptist Convention, for example, recently updated its air conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems, which will save fifteen to twenty percent annually on energy. The convention has also shifted to LED lights with state-of-the-art controls and reduced its work week to four nine-hour days, a step that saves $6,000 per year in building power and maintenance.

Converting to LED lights cost between three and four thousand dollars with payback of the initial investment within one year. The quarter million dollars spent on heat and air conditioning upgrades is expected to pay for itself in eight to ten years, according to Steve Pearson, the CSBC’s chief financial officer.

“We increased our SBC commitment by two percent in our 2013 [CP] budget,” Pearson said. “If I can reduce the core fixed costs required to operate the convention . . . that’s going to free up dollars for us to meet bigger needs and broader needs.”

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, implemented an energy-saving plan several years ago and saves approximately $225,000 a year as a result, school officials said in 2008.

Among the changes, Southeastern installed low-flow toilets, faucets, and shower heads to reduce water consumption, and did a large-scale change-out of the lights, installing high efficiency fluorescent fixtures. The school replaced old thermostats in many of the dorms with newer ones that have a more energy-efficient range—meaning that, for instance, the thermostat can be turned no lower than around sixty-seven degrees in the summer.

While these and other conservation measures reflect wise stewardship of natural resources, SBC entities, state conventions, and churches are also looking to decrease energy costs because of their focus on advancing God’s Kingdom, according to Pearson.

“When I can save money on my infrastructure costs, that frees up money that I can direct toward ministry,” he said.