Can the Government Itself Achieve Obama’s New Energy Efficiency Goal?

During his State of the Union Address, President Obama set the goal for the entire US economy to become 50% more energy efficient in the next 20 years. This objective is being hailed as an ambitious but achievable target, one that was endorsed by the non-partisan Alliance commission on National Energy Efficiency Policy.

Back in 2007, the Federal Government set a goal for itself to use 30% less energy than the 2003 baseline by 2015. This is nothing to scoff at, the federal government currently spends $28.8 billion a year on the energy involved in operating its facilities. Leading by example is almost definitely not going to spur the kind of commitment and innovation we need to actually double our energy productivity in 20 years, but it is a crucial first step.

There are some inherent difficulties that the federal government will have to overcome to achieve these levels of energy efficiency. For example, although federal agencies are permitted to retain savings achieved through energy and water reductions, by rule, these agencies can only receive money from Congress. This means that rebates offered by utilities for installing certain technologies or efficiency improvements must go to a general pool, which then gets reallocated back. Funding, bureaucracy, and an old building stock will make it more difficult for the federal government as a whole to achieve Obama’s lofty expectations.

So what has the federal government done in recent years to achieve its own goals, and are these measures enough to meet the new overall goal of cutting energy intensity in half over the next 20 years?

The Armed Forces

The unquestioned leader in government energy efficiency is the armed forces. The military has recognized that energy costs are of strategic importance to their mission and have been implementing energy and cost-saving measures for decades. One example of this happened in Afghanistan, where any savings in energy mean less need for resupply and therefore less convoys must be exposed to enemy combatants. The army implemented a method of insulation using closed-cell spray polyurethane foam to cover tents in two inches of foam that hardens and creates an insulating barrier. This one innovation has reduced power use between 40 and 75 percent and saves an astounding $3.6 million each day.

LEED Certification

Back home, the FY 2010-2015 Strategic Sustainability Performance Plan enacted the requirement for all new federal buildings be designed to achieve the USGBC’s LEED Gold Certification, and meet Energy Star standards. But how effective has this been in reducing overall energy consumption? The White House Sustainability and Energy Score Card found that “investments in energy efficiency over the last four years alone are expected to save as much as $18 billion in energy costs over the life of the projects.” However, the General Services Administration announced last week that it will be seeking public input on the federal government’s use of LEED as the default third-party green building certification program. While most expect that this review will, at most, allow the use of Green Globes, another third-party verification system, the real metric that needs review is actually energy savings that have been achieved, and whether these live up to the high standards set by the president.


Another interesting measure the federal government has taken has been in the often-overlooked realm of public housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has recently required that all public housing make Green Physical Needs Assessments (GPNA) to address the long-term needs and impacts of energy use. Their GPNA tool is designed to determine the remaining useful life of all building components and develop long term strategic plans by identifying energy conservation measures and cost estimation for Public Housing Authorities. The Department of Housing and Urban Development spends $5 billion a year on utilities for public housing. These buildings are notoriously inefficient and cutting this number in half will require serious investment and education campaigns for the occupants of these buildings.

Overall, given the particular barriers that government agencies face, it seems unlikely that they will be able to achieve the goal of doubling energy productivity in 20 years. This is not for a lack of trying however, the federal government has taken some major steps in the right direction in the past few years. Whether in the front lines, Washington D.C. or urban housing projects throughout the country, the federal government is saving tax payer money and carbon emissions through investment in energy efficiency. President Obama’s goal is a lofty one, but there is no harm in reaching for it.

Article by Comly Wilson, appearing courtesy CleanEdison Blog.

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