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Saturday, January 15, 2005

Catholic Church Embraces the Wind

In a bid to combat decreasing membership as well as replace the treasury after huge payouts for sexual abuse scandals, the Catholic Church has unveiled the "Redemptive Energy" program.

Many non-profit organizations, for example, Greenpeace and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain, have joined with energy companies to benefit from the growing wind power market. This is the first time a church has done so.

"It's not an endorsement, if that's what you're thinking," said Monsignor Felipe Martinelli, spokesman of the U.S. Bishops Trading Organization. "We want people to buy into the wind scheme, but we're not being paid for saying that. We are in fact business partners with the utilities."

Consumers will be given a chance to specify that their electricity dollars go towards buying church-sponsored wind-generated power, and a portion of the premium they pay goes to the Catholic Church.

Since all electricity sources are mixed together on the grid, customers won't actually be getting wind power, but they will be supporting the construction of wind facilities so that someone somewhere might be.

The church sees it as a moral issue. "We cannot continue to burn coal or split atoms without eventually paying a very grave price," said Monsignor Martinelli. "Building a wind 'farm' shows that we are aware of the problem and that we are willing to admit it. By choosing to pay a little extra for electricity, a customer can feel better about his or her overall energy use, see that something is being done about it, and move on."

Even critics of wind power have some praise for the church's program. Mynas Bickering, a retired birdwatcher who opposes wind farms in Oklahoma, admitted the scheme seemed "honest."

"Confession and absolution -- that's their business, and that's the business of wind power," he said. "Unlike Greenpeace and others like that, the church isn't pretending that anything will change. They know you feel guilty and will pay a little extra to relieve some of that guilt. It doesn't matter that nothing actually changes -- except where the wind farms finally get built -- it's a matter of faith."

One of the first partners in the church scheme is Freenergy Windis in Massachusetts. Asked how they can make money with such an expensive technology that has relatively small and unpredictable output, director Brian Standing said the church is right: "Our product is a clean conscience -- that's what we sell, and in that sense you can be damn sure it's worth it. We sell it faster than we can put the towers up! If the government would let us, we wouldn't have to build anything, really, people want to buy into it that bad."

Some industry players oppose the church's involvement. Lobbying group America4Wind has issued a statement refuting the implication that wind farms do not actually produce substantial electricity. "That's just the kind of misinformation we consistently expect from the NIMBYs who always oppose progress. While we are glad that the Church embraces wind, we would like them to say what we say about it and nothing else. We don't go in and muck up with their beliefs, and they shouldn't stick their thumbs into ours," explained spokesperson Tomas Cherry.

But the idea appears to have caught on with the public, many of whom are eagerly transferring money to the Church's coffers even as construction of wind power facilities has been slowed by layers of growing opposition.

"It's a new paradigm of energy trading, where consumption remains paramount but with the right brand it's no longer a worry," anthropologist Minnie Boyle has written. "Where our parents had to choose between 'dropping out' and 'selling out,' we can now 'buy in,' letting our money testify our values and continuing to enjoy the advantages of the life we deserve."

"They're huge, industrial, noisy, distracting, they kill birds and bats, they wreck the landscape -- that's the real price," complains Bickering. "The church is just setting up another scandal, and we'll have to absolve ourselves out of this one too before long."

Update: Soon after this article was published, Mynas Bickering was arrested by the Department of Homeland Security. No further information is available. Freenergy Windis is installing 34 wind towers on his confiscated property.