Skip to content

Minneapolis church takes energy efficiency
to the highest power

FirstUnitarian700px Bruce Nelson (left) explained First Unitarian Society’s energy-saving efforts to participants at a
presentation and tour of the church.

First Unitarian shares its award-winning efforts with others in faith community 

MINNEAPOLIS - The First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis has become a model of energy efficiency and energy cost savings among the faith community in Minnesota. In just two years, through some basic energy improvements and maintenance, it has achieved substantial energy savings—enough to pay for the cost of improvements in the first year alone and to save thousands of dollars on utility bills in subsequent years.

First Unitarian Society, located at 900 Mount Curve Ave., near the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, achieved first place in the House of Worship category for the 2011 EPA ENERGY STAR Battle of the Buildings national competition. And now it is reaching out to other congregations in Minnesota to show how they can save each year in reduced energy costs.

“We took a close look at our building and found that a lot of ‘sparkplugs’ needed replacement or tweaking,” said Bruce Nelson, a church member and senior engineer with the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Division of Energy Resources. So, instead of “putting in a whole new engine,” he said his church pursued more basic no- and low-cost opportunities—maintenance and repair measures and some new parts to program systems. “A lot of times you can achieve dramatic savings with minimal capital investment, and that’s what we did.”

Simple measures, little investment

What first got the church’s attention was the result of a simple building energy benchmarking by ENERGY STAR’s Portfolio Manager tool. The building had a score of 29—meaning that 61 percent of congregational buildings in the United States had better energy performance!—before it started its improvements, and now it is at 60. A simple inspection of the church’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems revealed that control of the building’s warm air distribution system was in a very poor state. First Unitarian was built in the 1950s, and over the years many of the building system controls had become disabled. Nelson said fan motors had been running 24/7 from October to April, and because of that, both upper and lower auditoriums were being alternately over heated and over cooled with outdoor air. With very little capital expenditure, the motors were corrected to run on thermostat control, as designed, and thus control was restored to retain proper temperatures.

Then with the help of a rebate from CenterPoint Energy, First Unitarian installed an Internet-accessible controller to program the upper auditorium winter heat and summer cooling. Thus, the building’s heating and cooling system is now set via a web-based controller, and heat for the church is now turned off when areas of the church are unoccupied and turned on as needed when areas are in use. The energy improvements raised the Portfolio Manager score to 60—meaning the building now performs better than 59 percent of the nation’s congregation buildings. The resulting gas and electric energy consumption has been reduced by 35 percent.

Savings sustained for years to come

First Unitarian, which covers about 32,000 square feet of building space, has spent about $9,200 on its energy-saving efforts over two years—including $7,300 for two web-based controllers. Total energy saved is 26,000 kWh and nearly 11,000 therms, for a savings of about $17,000. The greenhouse gas reduction equates to 62 tons of carbon dioxide. Nelson estimates the church’s savings will be sustained for many years—as long as the control system is maintained.

To address the energy needs of the church, Nelson enlisted the help of Ken Duvio, a certified facilities manager for a company called NFS, LLC. Duvio, who specializes in building commissioning, energy conservation, and facilities cost management, began by evaluating the settings and controls of the church’s HVAC system. He focused on existing concerns and several simple energy-saving steps, such as fixing a steam valve that wouldn’t close and turning off the fan motors that were constantly running. Duvio was paid through a shared-savings contract in which he was paid primarily out of the energy savings achieved by his work.

The energy-saving efforts of First Unitarian have been so impressive that it has been recognized by ENERGY STAR, a joint effort of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designed to help consumers save money and protect the environment by using energy-efficient products and practices. Local energy groups salute First Unitarian and want to share its success.
“First Unitarian is a splendid showcase of what other congregations and community groups can do to save energy in their buildings,” said Julia Eagles, an organizer for the Metro Clean Energy Resource Team (CERT).

‘Pass it on to others’

Metro CERT combined with Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light on March 18, 2012 to sponsor a presentation and tour of First Unitarian and its energy-saving efforts. Fifty people, mostly facilities representatives from other metro-area churches, attended the Sunday afternoon event. In 2011, First Unitarian hosted several events to share their successes. Other outreach opportunities are planned for the future.

“The energy savings allows our church to invest more in our programs and services, so we’re grateful for the savings and happy to help pass it on to others,” said Nelson.

Of course not every church has someone with Nelson’s experience to spearhead its efforts. Nelson is a building science specialist for the State of Minnesota. He has contributed significantly in his many years of work with the Minnesota energy code, and he has nearly 40 years of experience in the energy and building science field. “The results of this extracurricular project have been extremely rewarding,” he said. “It’s sometimes frustrating to see so many public and private building owners who think they need to replace all of their equipment to get big energy savings. Sometimes the answer is simple and inexpensive.” 

To get started, Nelson suggests that churches—and in fact all commercial buildings—first benchmark their building’s energy performance to determine the potential for energy savings. “Then organize a committee and/or find an energy specialist who is willing to seek the low-cost solutions to your building,” Nelson said. “I guarantee you will find many opportunities.”

Metro CERT features First Unitarian’s efforts in a story on its website. For more on First Unitarian’s efforts, visit their website or contact Will Hegeman at or 612-377-6608.