WASHINGTON—The federal government counts so many buildings in its inventory that each of the 482,299 men, women and children who calls Kansas City, Mo., home could have the keys to separate edifices — and there would still be 20,000 buildings to spare.
Those 502,000 structures that spread across the nation — 445,000 are owned and 57,000 are leased — add up to roughly 3.3 billion square feet of space.
Well, the General Services Administration (GSA), which oversees the business of the federal government, is a treasure trove of such data. And the cost of heating, cooling and lighting all of that square footage provided the momentum to guide yet another government agency — the White House Office of Management and Budget — in the crafting of a seven-part federal sustainability scorecard.
Scorecard results for fiscal year 2010 indicate that the one category where the government is falling short is on greening its half a million buildings. Only five agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Agriculture, State and Treasury departments, and GSA — bare showing significant progress toward making 15 percent of their buildings more sustainable by 2015.
But Steve Goldman, a research and policy specialist at the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy, said that somewhat paltry progress thus far is no reason for despair.
"Maintaining mission integrity and meeting these goals takes resources and time," Goldman told SolveClimate News in an interview. "I absolutely don't believe this is a wild goose chase. There's never a downside to making facilities more livable and efficient."
Bar Set Quite High
The concept of a federal scorecard measuring sustainability originated after President Obama issued what's officially known as Executive Order 13514 in October 2009. It directs government officials to lead by example by collecting benchmark data and setting energy conservation targets.
Departments and agencies are given grades of "red," "yellow" or "green" — the top score — for their levels of compliance with slicing emissions of heat-trapping gases, conserving water, boosting energy efficiency, cutting waste destined for landfills, paring petroleum use by fleet vehicles and making their buildings energy efficient.
EPA, GSA and Treasury met or exceeded every performance benchmark across the board. And, of the 24 total agencies scored, about half received "green" grades on at least five out of seven of the categories.
As noted previously, only five agencies met the "A" or "green" standard for building sustainability in the report card OMB issued jointly with the Council on Environmental Quality in April. Goldman contends that so many agencies scored "red" or "yellow" in that category because it's the most difficult and unwieldy standard to achieve.
"These are pretty ambitious targets so it's an expensive proposition," he said, adding that historic buildings present their own challenges with oddly shaped roofs that can't accommodate solar panels or wind turbines, and older windows that have to be preserved or covered with storm windows instead of replaced. "People imagine a stereotypical government building but they're all built differently. It's a massive portfolio with massive square footage. These things take time to put into place."
Consistent high scores on the federal report card put the government on track to save the government a cumulative $8 to $11 billion by 2020, according to OMB figures.
Such a potential payback could be quite remarkable for a federal government that currently spends more than $7 billion a year to cover energy costs to operate its building inventory. That $7 billion is close to one-quarter of what the government spends on its total annual energy bill of about $24.5 billion, according to data compiled by the Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP).
FEMP calculations also reveal that the federal government chomps through close to 1.5 percent of all of the energy the entire nation consumes annually. Close to one-third of that 1.5 percent figure is consumed by federal buildings.
Thinking Beyond the Building
President Obama is by no means the first chief executive to issue an order directing the federal government to invest in energy savings. He's following a tradition that several other U.S. leaders also have initiated.
As a matter of fact, previous orders have played a role in the federal government dropping its energy use by 16 percent from 1985 to 2007, according to Alliance to Save Energy figures.
What's different, innovative and effective about Obama's order is that emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases are the centerpiece integrated into each and every measurement of sustainability.
"That has helped us to tie together a lot of pieces that were in disparate places before," Kevin Kampschroer of GSA told SolveClimate News. "That gets you to think not just about your building but instead how your building fits in and is affecting the neighbors, so to speak. By cooperating with the locals and not just going through the motions, you don't have the federal government coming into an area and being the classic ugly American."
Kampschroer directs GSA's Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings.