It takes a village to launch energy savings and waste reduction programs.
Sometimes the most difficult part of a project is just figuring out how to get started. That's certainly true for federal executives and managers struggling with green government mandates and guidelines. Agency leaders universally support environmental sustainability objectives, but they can be intimidated by the sweeping vision and myriad requirements packed into each new law or mandate. And many also are uncertain how to tackle the provisions in a comprehensive way.
A case in point is President Obama's executive order on Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy and Economic Performance. Issued in October 2009, Executive Order 13514 lays out a range of energy, water and waste reduction targets for buildings, IT infrastructure, vehicle fleets and other areas of operation. It also directs agencies to leverage federal purchasing power to promote green products and technologies. How should agencies respond to such a far-reaching mandate?
Leaders can begin by looking at the big picture. There are at least five broad areas that can be addressed; and within each area, executives and managers have numerous levers they can pull to help achieve the executive order's goals.
Facilities. The General Services Administration is responsible for the construction and maintenance of buildings, and to some extent operations, but tenant agencies have a big impact on energy efficiency and other sustainability factors. GSA can outfit a building with a new heating and air conditioning or lighting system, but if a tenant's settings for the temperature or lights are not optimal, then anticipated savings would be not be realized. Agencies must coordinate with their landlords, and executives should enforce sustainability standards at their facilities.
Purchasing. Agencies can put in place policies that ensure their industry partners promote sustainability. They can provide incentives and/or competitive advantage to manufacturers that offer green products and service contractors with good environmental records.
Technology. Data centers can consume up to 100 times more energy than a standard office building, according to the Energy Department's Federal Energy Management Program, so there is a push to consolidate them in the federal government. Even without consolidation there are ways to improve data center operations to reduce energy consumption, such as using energy-efficient computers, servers, printers and other products. Agencies also can shrink their carbon footprint through virtualization technology, which creates virtual machines that act as real computers and operating systems.
These products require less energy and can replace hardware. Moving beyond the data center, other green initiatives include clearing out redundant servers, and unplugging cell phone chargers, recording equipment and other "vampire" devices that suck energy even when they are not in use.
Human Resources. Telework is a prime source of savings, reducing fuel needs for commuting, construction needs for real estate and power needs for office space. It also achieves other goals in the 2010 Telework Enhancement Act, such as more efficient operations and continuity of operations following a disaster. In addition to expanding telework, executives can instruct employees to adopt energy-efficient behavior, such as turning off lights when they leave for the day, refraining from bringing in office heaters or adjusting thermostats, and remembering to recycle at work. The Environmental Protection Agency says recycling just one aluminum beverage can saves enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for three hours, or a TV for two hours. Agencies also can offer incentives to employees who commute by car pool or public transportation.
Processes. Agencies can minimize travel by scheduling meetings and conferences closer to their offices, or conducting more meetings and business online or by phone. They also can move toward paperless processes and buy green office products.
Agency leaders should start initiating activities in each of these areas. In most instances, it doesn't matter which lever they pull first. The important thing is to identify energy-saving activities and begin them, adding more activities and programs over time. And some are mutually reinforcing from different areas.
If the IT staff provides secure energy-efficient laptop computers, for example, then more employees can telework. Training programs can encourage people to adopt paperless processes, hold virtual meetings and unplug vampire devices. Recycling can be promoted through a facilities management program as well as a human resources initiative. Ultimately, these interconnected programs and participating employees will evolve into a sustainability community throughout the organization.
Selecting sustainability levers is just the beginning. It's also important to ensure that these activities achieve the desired energy savings and other green government objectives.
Continuous improvement is extremely important. The process will offer many lessons. New technologies and solutions will develop; new directives and targets will emerge.
Agencies are learning the importance of strong oversight and coordination of sustainability activities. The new senior sustainability officers established by Executive Order 13514 can provide much needed leadership if given the necessary authority and tools. But a senior sustainability officer cannot go it alone. Achieving these goals will require engaging the entire organization-and building a sustainability community-one step at a time.?
Molly O'Neill, former chief information officer of the Environmental Protection Agency, is a vice president at CGI Federal and a fellow of the CGI Initiative for Collaborative Government.