Image courtesy U.S. General Services Administration

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In the renovation of the headquarters of the U.S. General Services Administration, the agency that manages government real estate and procurement, architects aim to reclaim the original energy-saving features of the 1917 buiding, including natural lighting and ventilation.

Image courtesy U.S. General Services Administration

Green Design Spree Aims to Trim U.S. Government's Big Energy Bill

The U.S. government, the nation's biggest energy user, aims to use $4.5 billion in stimulus funds to make federal buildings into "a proving ground for what works" in clean, efficient power.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Sure, you've heard about Big Government. But have you seen its energy bill?

With $25 billion in annual power and fuel costs, the U.S. government is the largest single energy consumer in the nation's economy, and among the largest in the world. Of course, the 500,000 buildings the government leases or owns include not only office space, but supercomputers, hospitals, and aviation safety radar facilities. And the 600,000 vehicles that Uncle Sam has to tank up include those conveying troops engaged in active combat.

For years, it has been clear that there's a big opportunity in the sheer size of this energy footprint. The U.S. Congress has been setting federal efficiency goals since 1978—in hope not only of cutting costs and foreign oil dependence, but also of leading the way for energy savings in the private sector.

The Obama administration now is seeking to ramp up that effort dramatically—with the help of an unprecedented $4.5 billion in stimulus funds to be spent by next September entirely for federal green building and renovation projects. By executive order, the federal government is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2020.

"We have an opportunity to be an example for American building, a proving ground for what works," says Bob Peck, commissioner of public buildings for the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), the agency that manages real estate and procurement for the civilian government.

"We can show what kind of payback in energy saving do you really get, and just how efficient and effective these new technologies are--from [solar] photovoltaics, to smart advanced meters, to solar heating," he says. "And we're happy about this imperative, because it takes the government from being a follower to one of the first adopters."

Unheralded Success

In fact, the U.S. government has successfully reined in its power use since Congress first began setting targets in the wake of the 1970s energy crises. Energy use per square foot in U.S. government buildings has fallen nearly 30 percent since 1985. In ordinary commercial buildings in the United States, the trend has been headed in the opposite direction—with so-called "energy intensity" increasing 13 percent between 1992 and 2003, according to the most recent figures available.

"I've always found these figures striking," says Jeff Harris, vice president for programs at the nonprofit Alliance to Save Energy, a coalition of business, government, and environmental groups focused on efficiency. "I think we often haven't given enough credit to the work that has been accomplished."

But the challenges remain substantial. Even with the U.S. government's large efficiency improvement, its defense, safety, and science missions require so much juice that energy per square foot still is 30 percent higher than that of the private sector. And efficiency progress appeared to be slowing. Energy improvements had to be made out of the $1 billion per year the GSA typically is budgeted for new construction or renovation of its portfolio of federally-owned buildings. Last year, a report by the U.S. Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program said that overall government energy intensity improvement was only 1.2 percent in 2008, less than half the goal of 3 percent per year set both by Congress and under an executive order by former President George W. Bush. "The Federal Government is not likely to meet its goals in the coming years using a business-as-usual approach," the report said.

The federal building projects that have been contracted with a total $5.5 billion in funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are meant to be a departure from business as usual. Congress stipulated that $4.5 billion of that total be spent on "green" building projects. So far, GSA has awarded 70 solar photovoltaic projects, projects for advanced electricity metering in more than 250 buildings, more than 200 lighting projects, more than 190 roofing upgrades, and 250 water conservation projects.

Opening Windows

And there are major renovations, such as the $160-million makeover of GSA's own headquarters, which will begin in January just a couple of blocks from the White House in downtown Washington, D.C. Here, the government hopes to reclaim some of the original features of the E-shaped building. Its large internal courtyards were designed to provide natural lighting and ventilation for those working inside when the structure was built in 1917.

"The buildings that were built before the age of air conditioners were designed as green buildings—they just didn't call it that," says Peck. "They had large windows and no one could have an office that didn't have access to daylighting. And the windows could be open on both sides of narrow corridors so the air could flow through."

But as has been typical in buildings in recent decades, the windows of the GSA building were painted shut many years ago so workers could not allow air-conditioned or heated air to escape. Peck says that one of the many innovations in the refurbished building–including solar water heating, a "cool roof," and an extensive water recycling system—is simply a plan to allow workers to open the windows. The building still will have air-conditioning, but it will be controlled in separate zones. And Peck imagines that workers will sometimes receive email informing them when days are so hot they need to keep windows closed. "We're going to have a hybrid system and we're going to learn some things about how you manage air temperature," he says.

The U.S. government already has had success with new natural ventilation buildings, including the GSA office building in San Francisco, California, and new space for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. In fact, since 2000, the U.S. government has had 310 buildings certified as high-performing examples of sustainable architecture under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, and 3,500 more federal buildings are pursuing certification. "They are out in front on green buildings," says Melissa Gallagher-Rogers, director of the government sector programs for the building council.

In late October, GSA said it would require that every new federal building and substantial renovation project meet the LEED "Gold" standard, an upgrade from the "Silver" target that had been in place since 2003. "I think that there's a huge momentum that's being built up and I think we're just going to continue moving forward and improving the performance," says Gallagher-Rogers.

Fueling Change

Nancy Sutley, who as chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality is President Obama's chief environmental adviser, says the variety of the federal government's building portfolio may be as big a challenge as its size. "We have every possible kind of building from the White House to a homeland security port of entry in Maine that's dealing with temperature extremes," she says. "So we're thinking about how to apply green building standards to a very diverse set of buildings."

And in working toward its greenhouse gas emissions goal for 2020, the federal government also will have to tackle the challenge of vehicle fuel. In fact, more than 60 percent of the government's energy consumption is for transport—particularly jet fuel.

But Sutley says that the Department of Defense, with numerous programs to shift to greener fuels and reduce oil dependence, has set one of the most aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets government-wide: 34 percent by 2020.

"Fuel is a huge cost for them dollar-wise, but it also is a huge cost when they have to send these fuel convoys hundreds of miles into Afghanistan to provide fuel to the troops, putting people's lives at risk," Sutley says. "So reducing their operational energy is also protecting the troops, and it also is an example of how across the federal government, agencies are recognizing that sustainability is mission-critical."

(Related: National Geographic's Personal Energy Meter)

Yewon Kang and Zak Koeske of Medill News Service in Washington, D.C. contributed to this report.