By Chris West
Dr. Donald Colliver’s interest in climate science began during his college years while working with a local electric cooperative where he met people struggling financially. During that time, he realized, ”that energy was a major expenditure and oftentimes wastefully used,” which sparked his interest in energy conservation and renewable alternatives.
Today, Don serves as the director and professor of Graduate Studies and Controlled Environment Systems at the University of Kentucky, one of the nation’s top programs in biosystems and agricultural engineering. Just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Don via Zoom about the impact of faith on his work and the ways in which churches could practice creation care to ensure a safer, healthier and more sustainable environment.
Chris: Don, thanks for speaking with me today. As an outsider, like most of our readership, I am only vaguely familiar with “biosystems and agricultural engineering.” Could you tell me more about this field and why it is so important?
Dr. Colliver: Absolutely. Biosystems and agricultural engineering make up the field of engineering that blends biology with engineering principles to design solutions for living systems. It is an engineering degree offered in about 40 universities in the U.S. Some of the areas in which we work include soil water and waste issues, design of agricultural machinery, processing of food and fiber from the field to the home, and environmental control of plant/animal/human housing.
I started my work dealing with solar energy and residential housing; and it evolved into determining the weather parameters used in the design of all types of buildings and then into the design and operation of energy efficient buildings. The overall, long-term objective is to minimize energy and carbon usage with the constraints of maintaining present standards of living and acceptable environmental conditions.
Chris: As the father of a CBF minister and an active member of a CBF congregation, faith is obviously something that is important to you. How has your faith impacted or inspired your work?
Dr. Colliver: That’s simple. God told us to take care of the earth. We are caretakers rather than owners. It is our responsibility to our children and their children to leave the world a better place than when we started. God gives each of us talents. I’m thankful that he gave me the talent to be able to analyze situations, develop and apply solutions, and organize and lead groups to attempt to make our living conditions comfortable and efficient places to live and work.
Chris: Recently, you were appointed to co-chair a prestigious ASHRAE taskforce to “address climate change through responsible decarbonization strategies for the built environment.” Congratulations! What is the goal of this taskforce and how is it working to combat climate change?
Dr. Colliver: Let me first introduce ASHRAE. ASHRAE is the professional organization related to the arts and sciences of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning. It is an organization with 53,000 members and 199 chapters around the world that produces technical information, standards and codes, and also does research on HVAC&R topics. I was fortunate to serve as its president several years ago, leading a group that produced books related to how to design, construct and operate buildings more efficiently than simply meeting the energy codes. There are currently more than 650,000 copies of these books in circulation.
Currently, there are several cities, 25 states and 110 countries that have set goals toward carbon reduction. How they are going to achieve those goals is not yet determined. Since buildings account for 40 percent of the carbon dioxide production, they must be considered. The goal of the ASHRAE Task Force for Building Decarbonization is to provide information on how to design, build and operate buildings with net-zero carbon.
This organization also has a working group related to COVID-19 with a website that has around 1.5 billion impressions. That is to say, the reach of this group is significant. Our task force was set up to think about the total life cycle of carbon—from the mining of the iron ore all the way to the disposal of the building itself.
Chris: How can congregations better address climate change and advocate for environmental justice?
Dr. Colliver: Congregations can start by encouraging individuals to take part – both in their churches and in their homes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that if U.S. congregations would cut back on their utilities by only 20 percent, it would save $630 million a year, prevent the emission of more than 2.6 million tons of greenhouse gases and be the equivalent of taking 480,000 cars off the road or planting 60,000 trees.
We all can do our part in our houses of worship and homes to leave the world better than we found it. The easiest and simplest thing to do is to conserve—unplug and turn things off, adjust
our thermostats (over 50 percent of the energy usage in churches is for heating), replace incandescent and fluorescent lights with LEDs and occupant sensors, install insulation and window films, seal up leaks, and get an energy audit to find out where energy is being used and how it can be reduced. We can Investigate upgrading to kitchen and HVAC equipment that is more efficient and then properly maintain it! Finally, we can consider installing ground source heat pumps and solar photovoltaic systems. The renewable energy sources are becoming less expensive and perhaps more importantly, can be a visible statement of being a good steward of God’s earth.
Chris: You mentioned earlier that your church has made many of these changes already and that you yourself have solar energy sources. Have you seen any positive effects so far?
Dr. Colliver: My son, grandson and I put in a 10-kilowatt solar collector at my house Thanksgiving week of 2019, 16 months ago. It is the equivalent of planting approximately 154 trees and has saved 20 thousand pounds of carbon dioxide in just the 16 months since I’ve had it; it has already saved me money. Folks can save money and reduce carbon CO2 production by putting such collectors on their own homes. Congregations are no exception. Smart moves today can mean big savings down the road.
Chris: Is it true that by simply changing to more energy efficient lighting, a church or homeowner can significantly cool down its space?
Dr. Colliver: Yes, absolutely. For example, many churches are still using incandescent and fluorescent lighting. The LED alternative lighting option price has greatly dropped and drop-in replacements are readily available. The energy that is used by an LED light is one-tenth of what an incandescent one would be. Consider this: You burn yourself when you touch an incandescent bulb, but you can safely reach out and unscrew an LED bulb. If you have 50 bulbs in your sanctuary running on a Sunday, that is a considerable amount of heat which means a tremendous load for your AC system.
Chris: So, at what temperature should thermostats be set?
Dr. Colliver: First of all, conserving energy is the first thing we can do. A switch that’s turned off is our most economic way of conserving energy.
The issue is, how do we conserve energy but still maintain a safe, healthy, productive working environment. It comes down to being comfortable. My professional society has standards on comfort. At one point in time, I was making a presentation to a church that was renovating the HVAC system and my first statement at the business meeting was, “Some of you will say this system doesn’t work once it is put in. I see a lot of you with confused looks on your faces. How many of you are married and agree on what the thermostat setting is in your own home? Okay, so multiply that by a few hundred people.” The actual definition of comfort that’s used professionally is to have no more than 20 percent of the people uncomfortable. There is not a specific temperature and humidity setting; it is a range of temperatures and humidity that will change from winter to summer .
Chris: How bad is carbon for the environment?
Dr. Colliver: For every kilowatt hour we save, we are saving about a pound of CO2. Going back to the 100-watt bulb, if we spent five kilowatt hours meeting for a one-hour service, which means 50 100-watt bulbs burning for an hour (not unusual for a church sanctuary), then we would produce five pounds of CO2. Imagine that instead of carbon, we were talking about flour. A one-hour service would be equivalent to throwing five pounds of flour in the air. We would be concerned about how much flour we are breathing in. It is hard to visualize. It is hard to imagine a pollutant in the air that your eyes cannot see without assistance.
Plants, especially trees, remove carbon from the air during photosynthesis when producing oxygen. Imagine how much land and effort you would need to plant enough trees to remove the carbon you use as a church in a year. You simply cannot keep up.
Chris: Thanks so much for your time and for sharing with us this encouraging message. I pray that our churches take seriously your words of wisdom. The future of our environment depends on it.
Chris West is a first-year M.Div. student at Duke Divinity where he is a CBF Leadership Scholar and part of the Baptist House of Studies. Chris is currently serving as an Oral History Specialist at CBF as part of the Student.Go program to further explore his interest in American religious history. Additionally, Chris works at the Center for Reconciliation at Duke and is pursuing certificates through the Theology, Medicine, and Culture program and Office of Black Church Studies.