Being Green

Legislation pushes more efficient federal buildings-and industry is ready to help.

The 2005 energy bill is keeping some government contractors up at night, and not because it extended daylight-saving hours.

While agencies have been taking steps to conserve energy for the past decade or so, this latest mandate, signed by President Bush in August, encourages additional measures in federal buildings, including the increased use of solar energy, better measurement of energy expenditures, and a reduction in energy consumption per square foot. As a result, contractors that construct buildings and fit them with heating and cooling systems for the government are targeting more agencies with their energy-saving technologies.

"The environmental aspect of the business has really picked up . . . it's causing huge waves in the energy service industry," says Devin Castleton, an energy analyst for the Palo Alto, Calif.-based consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

Trane, a Piscataway, N.J., company that sells heating and cooling systems as part of American Standard Companies Inc., recently rolled out a Web-based system that can track a building's energy use. It considers the effects of roofing, windows and orientation to the sun. Robins Air Force Base in Georgia and Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina recently awarded Trane contracts to provide temperature control services.

The General Services Administration, which manages most of the government's civilian office space, awarded an environmentally friendly lease agreement last year to the Washington-based unit of the real estate development company Opus Group to build an office in Riverdale Park, Md., for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Weather Service. As with all new GSA projects, the lease requires that the building be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry group that rates energy efficiency. Opus also plans to add a "green" roof, which would include plantings or light-reflective material to reduce the amount of heat the building is forced to absorb.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act also extended until 2016 the use of energy-savings performance contracts, which allow contractors to finance projects upfront and then get paid out of savings generated from improved systems. The contracts are controversial. In January, the Government Accountability Office criticized the technique after six contracts it examined cost the government more than traditional financing methods. Still, they are popular. Mark Ewing, director of GSA's energy center, says without an energy-savings performance contract, GSA could not have afforded the utility plant at the Food and Drug Administration's White Oak Federal Research Center in Silver Spring, Md., which now provides most of the campus' electricity.

Federal buildings are among the heaviest users of energy-efficient technologies, largely because of congressional and executive mandates. Ewing says GSA's headquarters is considering a solar panel for some of its electrical needs. The agency also is looking at a "membrane"-a thin metal sheet that would cover the outsides of federal buildings. It uses sunlight to heat a 3-inch buffer of air, which ends up 20 to 30 degrees warmer before it is pumped into the building for further heating. Landfill gas also offers an efficient energy source that could soon become more popular. In 2003, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., became the first federal building to use methane from a local landfill to generate fuel for heat. It expects to save $3.5 million over the next 10 years.

The Energy Department's Federal Energy Management Program, which is charged with helping agencies become more energy efficient, reports that government initiatives are having a positive effect. According to its 2004 report, federal buildings have reduced energy consumption by 25 percent per square foot since 1985. As energy costs increase, pressure to cut back even more is likely to rise. After Hurricane Katrina, President Bush told agencies to save gas and electricity as much as possible, which also meant limiting travel, and in November Energy launched a Web site (www.eere.energy.gov/buildings) to foster energy-efficient reconstruction.

Still, some energy analysts say much more can be done. One problem is the way energy savings are measured, says Jean Lupinacci, chief of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star commercial and industrial branch. Government buildings often are certified as environmentally friendly when they are under construction, she says, and might not be as energy efficient as predicted after they are completed.

Richard Schneider, a project manager at the Army Corps of Engineers' Construction Engineering Research Lab in Champaign, Ill., which supports Army facilities, says it's sometimes hard to justify energy-saving techniques such as solar panels or extra insulation. They might save money in the long run, he says, but they often bump up initial costs. The energy bill requires that new buildings consume 30 percent less energy than existing codes stipulate, but only if the changes are deemed "life-cycle cost-effective" over a building's lifetime. So, says Schneider, "There's still a loophole."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook