Background: This conversation was between Reverend Mitchell Hescox and Michael Bodakowski on August 29, 2012 as background for a consultation on faith and energy access. Reverend Hescox discusses his work with the Evangelical Environmental Network, primarily related to energy access. Access to energy, Mitch notes, is a necessary component to fulfill the Christian obligation to serve Jesus through serving the poor. He sees clear links between those working on the environment and energy access, but notes that we need to increase knowledge of these links both in the Christian community, and the development community more broadly. He discusses an upcoming partnership with World Relief and The National Association of Evangelicals focused on mobilizing the U.S. Evangelical community to work to reduce energy poverty in the developing world. The Evangelical network in the U.S., he emphasizes, is a significant resource to mobilize, both financially and influentially. Mitch sees importance in harnessing lessons learned from the many faith-inspired projects already underway.
Can you describe the path you have taken to your current role with the Evangelical Environmental Network?
I have been a Christian all of my life. The first 14 years of my career were spent in the energy industry where I travelled the world working with coal-fired electric generating facilities. After that I spent years being a local church pastor. I have two passions in my life: one is sharing the story of Jesus and the other is helping the poor. So when I left the pastorate I was directed to The Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN) where I combined my two passions. Our motto at EEN is “creation care is a matter of life,” where we try to educate the church on the role that the environment has in providing the necessities of human life and how to do so in a sustainable way.
You mentioned that you have worked in the energy industry as well?
While working in the energy industry, I spent a significant amount of time, primarily in India and South Africa, helping to provide equipment for centralized generator stations. There I saw, honestly, the massive excesses of the costs of providing central generator power and grid systems around the world. This led me to the conclusion that to provide sustainable energy, many people in the world were going to have to come up with a new way of thinking, and a new way of doing. That is what sparked my interest in locally produced sustainable power.
How do you approach the topic of energy access, both from a conceptual standpoint drawn from your theological teachings and faith inspiration, and also in practice?
One of the things that we are involved with right now is a long term dream of ours that we are working on with the National Association of Evangelicals and World Relief. It is a program which we call “Light Up the World in the Name of the Light of the World.”
The impetus behind the program is that we believe that inadequate access to clean and sustainable energy is the root cause of many problems associated with poverty and the lack of healthcare in the world. Lack of access to sustainable clean energy is also one of the hindrances to completing successfully the Millennium Development Goals.
Energy is a root problem for the critical development challenges, such as a lack of education, and poor health, and as many as two million children die each year from a combination of smoke inhalation from open fires, and injuries and deaths resulting from burns either from open fires or the kerosene flames. Those are some moral, faith-based reasons why we believe this is an issue.
Other specific issues that put energy access at the top of our agenda are: the fact that women are forced to gather firewood for hours upon days in the developing world; the lack of water and the lack of electricity to sustain modern educational institutions; lack of power to sustain medical facilities; lack of adequate lighting in the majority of the world.
Do you see a distinct theological basis for working to end energy poverty specifically, and should development organizations differentiate the work of faith-inspired actors in energy access?
I think it goes back to what I said before—faith actors have a primary concern—meeting the needs of the least of us. In the Bible Jesus says that whatever you do to the least of those you do also to Jesus. My organization believes that sustainable clean energy is one of the roots of poverty in the poor nations of the world. People like Richard Alley, who is a geophysicist from Penn State, think that with energy we can help provide cleaner drinking water and as a result improve health, irrigate crops in the drought prone areas, and save and rebuild the forests when we do not need to use the wood for charcoal.
Clean energy access is also a great source of freedom. We don’t have to be dependent upon massive infrastructures of grid development systems or central generator plants to take electricity into the most remote areas, or even building by building in the urban areas of the world. Whether it’s in an urban slum in Nairobi or in rural India, we can improve energy access to provide the basic necessities for life.
Can you speak some more about the project, Light Up the World in the Name of the Light of the World?
It’s a brand new project that hasn’t been formally unveiled yet; it will be unveiled next month. What we are going to be doing with Light up the World is a twofold process. We will be educating the American Church on the need for us to become energy efficient. Within that we will encourage local churches to take their energy dollar savings and turn those into support for sustainable clean energy in the developing world. The National Association of Evangelicals and EEN will be the education arm in the United States and World Relief will be the recipient of those funds to turn them into projects to provide solar, wind or hydro projects in the developing world. World Relief is the organization that has feet on the ground to implement and provide basic support for the programs.
Coordination is a challenge in providing energy access to the over 1 billion people living out of reach of the power grids. What are some practical ways to improve coordination, and what are some of the big coordination issues and how can they be overcome?
What we have to do is build on the successes we’re already having from those organizations that are doing this work in the field, learn from their experiences and technologies, and promote cooperation of best resources, best technology ,and best approach to these problems. That would require all of us coming together to unite and work within our individual spheres, but take successes that have already been achieved so as not to reinvent the wheel. There are great energy practitioners out there who have started to do this work, and they really provide the key lessons to make this sustainable and beneficial around the world.
Do you think using Church and faith networks can be effective in energy access work and what are the other actors you have come across doing energy access work?
There are a variety of people who are doing this work. We’ve seen projects in India that are generating energy capabilities using rice husks and we have done work on similar scales with things like the Paradigm Project that promotes efficient and clean stoves and solar lanterns. There is a Christian organization in Ohio called SonLight Energy that is also doing great work.
What we bring to the table is the fact that we work within the evangelical community that is about 27 percent of the population of the United States. Within our network of approximately 40,000 churches and millions of individuals we represent a significant block of the church in the United States. So we are bringing 25 percent of the population of the United States and educating them on this issue—many people do not understand energy poverty. Energy poverty is an issue that people are just beginning to address and we are educating our congregations.
Are you in involved in policy advocacy, for example on issues such as energy pricing?
Yes, our advocacy work hinges our creation care as a matter of life. We have for years been educating policy makers and the public on energy’s true cost. For example the external cost of producing electricity in the United States, in some studies, ranges as high as $0.18 per KW. These costs include public health costs, infrastructure, property damage, etc.
Again, the general aspect of our ministry especially of policy is caring for human health and life.
Do you have any relationships or partnerships, or do you coordinate with any private sector companies through your work?
The Evangelical Environmental Network is a network of over 80 evangelical organizations that support our ministry and care for God’s creation. We also from time to time form special partnership for particular projects as the previously mentioned, “Light Up The World.”
We are also one of four partners in the National Religious Partnership for the Environment.
From your experience, do you see links between those working on creation care and those working on sustainable energy access?
I think that in the creation care network there is a great understanding of sustainable energy access, but in the general population of the church we still have a long way to go.
We are certainly the leader in the evangelical world discussing creation care. There are other organizations that are out there, but we are one of the oldest and the longest running in this linking these together. That is one of the reasons why we are a part of the Accord Network, which is the association of all Christian relief and development organizations in the United States. They are our primary partners and we are formal members. Within the Accord Network, we work to link creation care to the impact of sustainability on life changing movements throughout the world.
Is there a specific approach that you think faith actors bring to energy access work and approaching energy poverty that secular actors don’t do?
I think the faith community brings a lot of very positive assets to sustainable energy work. The ability to work through a variety of the Christian relief and development organizations is extremely effective, and I think one of our key attributes. Our organizations have been on the ground for 50 years and have worked with more people around the world than many other organizations. We also provide the best access and ability to educate the American public and the western public on the need for energy access. Because we deal with so many people on a daily basis and are in constant contact with those members of our faith community, bringing the imperatives of energy access to the forefront is a much easier task in the faith community than outside.
Are there any specific sermon guides that approach energy poverty?
Actually it is part of our work to develop new resources in that regard right now. We have a lot of ministry material in all of our work, including my colleague Jim Balls’ book Global Warming in the Risen Lord. There is a whole section focused on energy poverty and the need for sustainable clean energy.
Who are the leading faith-inspired actors working on energy access that should be at the table?
Some of the leaders that come to mind are: Galen Carey, Vice President at the National Association of Evangelicals; Stephan Bauman, President of World Relief; Another person engaged is these issues is Andy Ryskamp, director of The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) U.S. office in Grand Rapids, Michigan.