Can Obama’s Plan to Green the Nation’s Federal Buildings Deliver?

So far, only five agencies have shown significant progress toward making 15% of their buildings more sustainable by 2015

Penn Quarter, Washington, D.C.
Penn Quarter, Washington, D.C./Credit: Mr T in DC

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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.

Who knew?

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.

Energy managers find that they are reaching savvier budgeting decisions with carbon as their guiding beacon, he said. For instance, standard roofs have to be replaced every several decades anyway. Installing a “living green” or “white” roof as part of a regular maintenance plan is a financial boon because these environmentally friendly roofs last longer and reduce heating and air conditioning bills. Additionally, switching out light bulbs in favor of light-emitting diode technology pays for itself quickly and helps to curb emissions significantly.

Using planet-warming emissions as a tool is head and shoulders above other measuring sticks because decisions based on that metric drive down cost and eliminate waste, Kampschroer said.

“Greenhouse gas emissions make you think in lifecycle terms,” he concluded. “That takes discipline and that discipline hasn’t always been there before.”

Legislative Lift on Way?

While Congress has been accused of doing more bickering than legislating this session, what might be referenced as a minor miracle did unfurl in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in mid-July.

The panel, chaired by New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, voted 18 to 3 to advance a bipartisan bill that promotes a broad package of low-cost mechanisms to reduce barriers for businesses, homeowners and the federal government to adopt off-the-shelf, energy-efficiency measures. The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act of 2011 (S. 1000) even attracted the vote of the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Floyd DesChamps, a policy and research specialist with the Alliance to Save Energy, complimented co-sponsors Sens. Jean Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) for their legislative dexterity.

“They solicited support from their peers early on,” he said. “It moved through committee in two months, which is highly unusual. The next challenge is to get it on the Senate floor.”

On the federal front, the measure lays out seven specific energy-efficiency directives that could help agencies in their efforts to improve their grades on OMB’s sustainability scorecard. For instance, it gives the nod to personal computer power-saving techniques, advanced metering and solar thermal as a viable renewable energy sources. It also requires the Department of Energy to examine the potential savings from closing at least 800 energy-intensive federal data centers by 2015.

The bill doesn’t allot separate pots of money to federal agencies, DesChamps said, adding that the money-saving measures can be incorporated into agency budgets at a minimal cost.

“This is a way to codify what’s already being done in many cases,” he said. “It directs agencies to realize the benefit of deploying energy efficiency and it gives taxpayers a return on the huge investment government has made in these incentive-based programs.”  

Score One for Federal Workforce?

The bill recognizes that while the federal government is the country’s largest single energy consumer, the industrial sector is also an energy gobbler. It points out that commercial and residential buildings combined account for 40 percent of all energy used. It creates a goal of achieving net-zero-energy construction by 2030 to tackle that significant drain.

Recently, a wide-ranging coalition of small and large businesses joined with environmental, public interest and faith organizations to praise Shaheen and Portman for pursuing a bill that has the potential to give the nation a leg up on global competition and reduce dependence on imported energy sources.

Lately, the GOP House majority seems to delight in deriding federal employees with the pejorative label of bureaucrat. Since January, deficit-obsessed Republicans have explored every option to slash the entire workforce in tandem with shrinking paychecks and benefits.

Ironically, observers point out, this comes at a time when much of the federal government is evolving into a model of money-saving energy efficiency. Not only are greener buildings a boon to the federal piggybank but workplaces with more natural light and chemical-free air are a bonus for the eyes, lungs and long-term health of employees.

“The federal government is working every day to reduce what they spend and still provide the resources everybody expects them to provide,” Goldman concluded. “We’re talking about dramatic energy savings and that matters to everybody.”