Johnny Townsend: The LDS Church should create solar and wind farms

FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2008, file photo, wind turbines from the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, the state's largest wind farm, loom above the horizon in Martinsburg, N.Y. A new law signed Thursday, July 18, 2019, by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo sets the nation's most aggressive targets for reducing carbon emissions and is intended to drive dramatic changes over the next 30 years. It calls for all the state's electricity to come from renewable, carbon-free sources such as solar, wind and hydropower. Transportation and building heating systems would also run on clean electricity rather than oil and gas. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

If there’s one thing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is good at, it’s acquiring real estate.

Critics find this near obsession less than Christlike, but church leaders can transform what’s currently an unflattering perception into both a financial and PR win. The church can convert some of its agricultural farms and cattle ranches to solar and wind farms to lessen the impact of the climate crisis. By doing so, the church will also create more outdoor jobs, a necessity for the foreseeable future as we adapt to the new reality of social distancing in the midst of a global pandemic.

Because the LDS Church is tight-lipped about its assets, it’s difficult to know exactly how many farms and ranches it owns and operates. Different sources list 290,000 acres in one part of Florida, another 380,000 acres in another part. One source lists 200,000 acres along the Utah/Wyoming border, a tract of 288,000 acres in Nebraska, and various other farms in Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and Zimbabwe.

It might be easier for church leaders to offer transparency, an act that in itself would produce good PR, if they also revealed the contributions they’re making toward generating renewable energy.

The church could hold on to its ranches and agricultural farms suffering under changing climate conditions. Or they could sell them. But they could also convert some of them to solar and wind farms. Many farmers around the world have started combining traditional crops with solar panels, sometimes even using the panels as shade for those crops vulnerable to increasing temperatures. And there’s a growing variety in types of wind turbines. The church can continue to grow crops and raise livestock where appropriate, but it can also generate and sell power to local communities.

The church gets money. Or it can donate energy to local communities and count that as a charitable gift.

The church reduces the community’s carbon output.

The church creates more outdoor employment.

The church gets positive news coverage.

The Evangelical Church in Central Germany generates all the energy its various congregations need — roughly 57 million kilowatt hours — through its own wind turbines. The oldest Presbyterian Church in Cleveland, Ohio, doesn’t want a turbine to mar its classic 1820 structure, but does purchase its energy from a nearby wind farm.

In the UK, a hundred Quaker meetinghouses have embraced renewable energy sources, as have another 900 Salvation Army buildings, over 2,000 Catholic parishes, and many buildings owned by the Church of England.

The roof of a single synagogue, Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., generates over 237,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year. There are solar panel and wind turbine companies that specialize in meeting the needs of religious structures.

The LDS Church claims its multi-billion-dollar portfolios are preparation for hard times. Investing to create more outdoor jobs would help address both immediate and long-term needs in the face of the pandemic. And, as even more hard times will increasingly be related to climate change, why not add investments in solar and wind power to church portfolios? Why not add carbon capture technologies? These and other “green” enterprises are where future income lies, not fossil fuels.

The church can also invest in geothermal power and wave energy. It can add solar panels to some of their chapels. A solitary wind turbine on every church property could become as much of a signature as Moroni atop LDS temples. All of these actions would add to global efforts at tackling the climate crisis, making them essential regardless of public perception. But they’ll also create goodwill.

Each president of the church wants to leave a personal legacy. David O. McKay is known for bringing the 19th century church into the 20th century. Spencer W. Kimball is known for greatly expanding the missionary program. Gordon B. Hinckley is known for his great strides in reducing societal stigma surrounding the church.

President Russell M. Nelson can be known for changing the name of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Or he can be known for being the tech president, for bringing the church into the 21st century and leading the worldwide religious efforts to address our ever more desperate climate emergency, which threatens more lives and livelihoods than even the worst-case projections for the coronavirus outbreak. And that’s a lot.

By their fruits ye shall know them.

Let’s pray for some climate-friendly fruit.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of, among other works, “Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land,” “Human Compassion for Beginners” and “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?”