Agency sustainability plans show the challenges of going green

While President Obama has charged federal agencies with leading the way in environmental stewardship, the blueprints they have submitted for accomplishing this illustrate how difficult that could be as feds first navigate a thicket of regulatory, technological and bureaucratic hurdles.

The sustainability plans for 54 agencies, which the White House released on Thursday, show both the progress agencies have made already in reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as some daunting challenges ahead. President Obama ordered the plans last October in Executive Order 13514.

The order required agencies to reduce direct greenhouse gas pollution 28 percent over 2008 levels by 2020 and to cut indirect emissions, such as those released in commuting and landfill waste generated by agencies, by 13 percent during the same period. Obama administration officials estimate such cuts would result in a cumulative reduction of 101 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, which is equivalent to the emissions from 235 million barrels of oil.

Agencies also must reduce electricity, water and fuel consumption and leverage their purchasing power to promote environmentally responsible products and technologies. The Office of Management and Budget will measure progress.

The Defense Department's 99-page plan illustrates how complex an undertaking this is. Fundamental to cutting energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is being able to accurately measure those things. Yet Defense, like most agencies, lacks an enterprisewide energy information management system that can provide accurate, timely data on consumption at various levels of aggregation, including individual buildings, installations, geographic regions, or the military services as a whole. The department is evaluating various commercial systems, but full implementation is likely years away.

Another challenge is the acquisition process itself, whereby Defense buys major weapons systems that inevitably consume vast amounts of energy -- aircraft, ships and combat vehicles, for instance. Officials are in the process of developing a set of mandatory energy requirements for new weapons. In addition, the Pentagon plans to make the financial burden imposed by energy requirements of new weapons a factor in technology selection. But developing the methodology to estimate the cost of fuel under various scenarios, and incorporating this cost analysis into Defense's evaluation of alternatives, will take time. Even after these changes are eventually implemented, it will be many years before the department reaps significant results in terms of fuel consumption on the battlefield.

Many elements of conservation are simply beyond agencies' control. The National Science Foundation report noted electricity transmission and distribution losses from purchased energy are primarily controlled by the commercial owner of its facility, and in the future (NSF might move to a new facility in 2013), by the General Services Administration and the contractor it selects to build or remodel its facility.

Cutting indirect greenhouse gas emissions will be a challenge for most agencies. NSF, for example, said telecommuting, widely viewed as one way to meet new targets, isn't likely to increase substantially without a mandate from the Office of Personnel Management or "a significant shift within agency leadership."

Technology will play a key role in agencies' efforts to rein in electricity consumption. Buying technology and appliances with Energy Star ratings and cutting travel by using teleconferencing technology are frequent themes in the plans.

The Health and Human Services Department noted it has had mixed success in implementing power management tools on personal computers, but is aggressively pursuing technical solutions. In addition, the department plans to reduce paper consumption by doing more double-sided printing, as well as adopting paperless office procedures and electronic records technology. HHS and the Transportation Department both are looking to consolidate data center operations to save energy.

The reports also highlight significant progress. Defense, for example, has invested substantially in new technologies aimed at reducing petroleum dependence. The Air Force is in the process of certifying all aircraft to use a 50-50 alternative fuel blend by next year, with the goal of purchasing half its domestic aviation fuel from alternative sources. The Navy is pursuing plans to field a carrier strike group powered by biofuel by 2016. The Army is developing technology to reduce the fuel consumption of some ground combat vehicles by as much as 40 percent.

Defense, by far the largest energy consumer, is working with the Energy Department to serve as a test bed for next-generation energy technologies that Energy, industry and university laboratories have developed. The Pentagon has programmed $30 million for a small-scale test bed, and has plans to expand it. Unlike many civilian agencies and commercial operators, Defense has the resources and capacity to invest in sustainable projects that might not recoup investments for decades.

"DoD can help create a market for those technologies that prove effective and reliable by serving as an early adopter, as it did with aircraft, electronics and the Internet," the report noted.

For Defense, meeting sustainability goals has become a national security imperative. The report pointed out that the vulnerability of the electric grid in the United States and petroleum supplies globally have direct implications for combat operations.

CORRECTION: This story was changed to reflect the fact that NSF is considering all options when its current lease expires. Also, the original version of this story quoted NSF's greater use of telecommuting as requiring a "significant change in agency leadership." The quote should read "a significant change within agency leadership."

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