U.S. Government Driving Deep Energy Efficiency in Federal Buildings, Raising the Bar on Design Excellence

In the face of tightening federal budgets and increasing scrutiny of expenditures, one corner of the U.S. government is sowing the seeds of a building energy efficiency revolution for the 21st century. This will result in dramatically reduced ongoing costs of federal building operations and catalyze the generation of technical and construction jobs for decades.

In late March, a contingent of boots-on-the-ground federal agency representatives met with a diverse group of energy service companies (ESCOs) in Washington, D.C., to dive into unrealized opportunities for federal building energy efficiency. ESCOs provide energy savings performance contracts to both public and private building owners that leverage energy savings to finance energy efficiency measures with low or no first cost. Martha Johnson, the recently departed administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), presented current and future goals as an energetic champion for a real energy and operations transformation within the federal government. She announced the launch of the GSA Deep Retrofit Challenge, in which ESCOs will compete to significantly reduce energy in specified existing buildings with a compelling return on investment through integrative design, reduced risk, and a roadmap to a zero environmental footprint. She called for an end to incrementalism and stale solutions, advocating imagination and technical creativity. It is clearly imperative for the success of this program that her successor continue the drive toward excellence in design and operations, with accountability for data and building performance.

Dr. Tim Unruh, program manager of the Federal Energy Management Program, also announced a pledge to invest $2 billion in energy efficiency projects within the federal government, with a streamlined process for implementation and improved internal procedures. Resulting savings in energy consumption and non-energy benefits will provide payback periods that will beg the question, “Why did we wait so long to do this?” In addition, Unruh publicized a new program called Enable, for consolidating many small building-efficiency projects into larger, single-implementation projects. This aligns beautifully with recent directions in the industry, such as New Building Institute’s Summit on Deep Energy Savings in Existing Buildings last September and Rocky Mountain Institute’s own Portfolio Energy RetroFit Challenge, announced three weeks ago. Since bundling energy conservation measures (ECMs) makes better financial sense than line-item ECMs, it stands to reason that bundling building energy projects results in an equally improved business case.

A military energy panel provided insights into great work being done on military bases worldwide—critical to optimizing operations in the continental U.S. as troops return from the Middle East. The U.S. Army has targeted 17 installations for net zero, addressing base security and ongoing cost of operations, and plans to invest $900 million in deep energy efficiency in the near term. This is the kind of initiative that drives market transformation in the private sector, with technology advancements and enriched service provider skills. Mobilizing the ESCO industry will be key to achieving these goals.

Also presenting a vision for the workshop was a representative of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for 21st Century Energy, focused surprisingly on oil and gas—19th century technologies. An “all of the above” approach to energy was briefly mentioned as a national solution, with an institutional goal of educating conservatives about efficiency and renewable energy. The attendees of the workshop, while clearly associating with both sides of the aisle, were very much interested in getting the efficiency and renewables agenda back on a bipartisan track where it belongs.

This kind of federal energy investment is a far better job-creation vehicle than throwing money into one-time investments to spur development. This will reduce the cost of running our government while simultaneously sparking an energy efficiency revolution that will have positive ripple effects deep into the larger world of real estate and energy services for decades to come.

Elaine Gallagher Adams, AIA, LEED AP, is an Architect/Senior Consultant with RMI, currently leading the Portfolio Energy RetroFit Challenge.