NEEDHAM, Mass. (AP) -- Old and new intersect at First Parish church in Massachusetts, which holds 18th-century timber in its walls and displays proof of its 21st-century energy efficiency with an "Energy Star" plaque by the door.
"Energy Star" status, more commonly associated with dishwashers and refrigerators, is now available to houses of worship as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency looks to lower energy use at thousands of congregations nationwide.
First Parish in Needham is one of just nine congregations in the nation with the designation, which it won after a recent multimillion-dollar expansion and renovation.
Among its upgrades: temperature controls for each room so energy isn't wasted in areas that aren't being used; a ventilation system that adjusts to the number of people inside by measuring the carbon dioxide being exhaled; new insulation in the meeting house walls, which are partly supported by beams from the church's original 1774 building.
As churches consider new efficiency upgrades, the EPA hopes they tap into the same ancient religious principle - good stewardship of the earth - that drove First Parish.
"It's a spiritual issue," said The Rev. John Buehrens, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist church. "Stewardship of the planet and a realization of the fragility of the creation and our responsibility of preserving its beauty is absolutely central to our religious values."
The United States has an estimated 370,000 houses of worship, nearly the number of its K-12 school buildings.
Some buildings seem primed for big improvement, such as the stately churches with high ceilings and leaky windows that are common in buildings in New England town squares. But Michael Zatz, EPA Energy Star commercial buildings manager, said older churches aren't necessarily far less efficient than newer buildings. Instead, he said, focusing on churches can have broad impact.
"The people sitting in those congregations are workers in ... other places - teachers in the schools, managers of hotels - and they might learn through the congregation about what can be done in buildings in general and take it into their workplace," he said. "They also may take it back to their home."
The EPA has reached out to congregations since 1999. But it just began awarding the Energy Star label in October. Before then, a periodic federal building survey hadn't reviewed enough houses of worship to allow the EPA to draw up Energy Star scores for that building type, Zatz said.
So far nine congregations from Alabama to Michigan have won the label. Variables such as a building's size, location and energy use over a year are plugged into a formula. The building's actual energy usage is then compared to what the formula predicts it will use. If it's more efficient than 75 percent of similar houses of worship, it's eligible for the Energy Star label. A licensed engineer must also verify the numbers.
Montevallo Presbyterian Church in Montevallo, Ala., earned the label after an assembly hall renovation completed in 2008. The work included such changes as installing energy efficient appliances, switching to better insulated windows and putting the water heater on a timer so that it's on only when needed, said the church's "Green Team" leader, Bill Peters.
Peters said the church is heeding Biblical commands to care for creation, but also wanted to decrease the impact of a nearby coal-burning power plant.
"The more electricity we consume, the more that that power plant has to pollute our air," Peters said.
After its efficiency upgrades, First Parish in Needham saw a significant drop in its utility bill, which fell from $20,000 to $12,000 in a year. Even after such significant savings, it will take years to make a dent in what it paid to make energy efficiency a priority in its $3.3 million renovation. But good environmental stewardship was the point, not cutting bills, Buehrens said.
"You don't spend $3.3 million in order to cut your utility bill in half," he said. "You do it for a much bigger set of reasons."
Zatz said congregations generally don't need a lot of money to get big gains in efficiency. Simple steps often mean a lot, he said.
"The most common one you hear, and it sounds silly but many people don't do it, is: 'Turn off the lights when you leave,'" Zatz said.