In October 1997, the Rev. Sally Bingham of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral and Steve MacAusland, a Dedham, Mass., video producer, conceived of a ministry in the marketplace that could turn Sunday sermons about God's green earth into here-and-now environmentalism. Why stop at Ezekiel 36: 5--God lambastes all Edom for plundering his land--when they could actually persuade the faithful to stop their plundering and buy electricity from nonpolluting sources? In this way, they could ease their conscience and help limit the damage done by fossil-fuel-powered plants, which produce about 40% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, the gas most responsible for raising the planet's temperature.
Neither Bingham nor MacAusland recalls which of them named their group. It's almost as if some deity simply declared "Let there be 'Episcopal Power & Light,'" and there was Episcopal Power & Light. In a three-year altar-to-altar crusade, they persuaded 30 churches and hundreds of households to buy clean electricity from a company called Green Mountain Energy, only to watch their work--and Green Mountain's nearly 60,000 California customers--smote by deregulation's failure.
Deregulation was supposed to cut electricity prices. But it also allowed consumers to choose a utility on the basis of other criteria, such as the energy source. That prompted EP&L into action. Renewable energy's future is a simple case of demand and supply: if EP&L and others influence consumers to choose renewables, more suppliers will enter the business. And bringing in more suppliers will close the price premium that green energy often carries, which will in turn spark demand.
That was, of course, before California's debacle, which erased EP&L's gains and caused some states to slam the brakes on dereg programs. Elsewhere, deregulation has lowered prices, and the green gang is still making inroads. So the game isn't over--some California parishes have begun strapping solar panels on their roofs--nor is the need for power of all kinds. The Energy Department sees a 25% surge in electricity needs by 2010 and has penciled in a similar rise in capacity. That supply growth depends on the construction of new generators. Yet the White House has proposed a 50% cut in wind and solar research--partly replenishable after 2004 with any revenue generated by selling oil rights for the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.
EP&L lifted off in 1998 when Green Mountain, based in Austin, Texas, agreed to print educational material and offer churches $35 cash for each parishioner who enrolled. Formerly part of a Vermont utility, the company was sold to private investors in 1997. A cynic might call the setup a marketing V.P.'s wildest fantasy: priests endorsing a product in the name of you-know-who and then pounding the pavement. But that would not be entirely fair. Both sides are vulnerable, and neither has an advantage. It's the Holy Spirit meeting the "invisible hand."