Congress votes to increase use of solar power in federal facilities

House lawmakers last week approved legislation that would increase the use of solar energy in federal buildings.

An amendment to the Energy Policy Act of 2003 (H.R. 6) introduced by Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., would set aside as much as $263 million over the next five fiscal years for use by the General Services Administration to outfit new and existing federal buildings with advanced photovoltaic solar electrical systems. Photovoltaic refers to the ability to produce voltage when certain materials are exposed to radiant energy, especially light.

"Now, the federal government spends $8 billion a year on utility costs for the 500,000 federal government offices that it operates, and we could save a considerable amount of money by retrofitting federal government buildings with photovoltaic cells," Oberstar told lawmakers when the amendment was introduced.

The legislation would require the installation of 20,000 photovoltaic solar energy systems in federal buildings by 2010. Oberstar and Norton hope that increasing the use of alternative energy sources in the federal government would expand the use of solar and other energy sources universally.

"It's time that the federal government went solar and set an example for the use of alternatives to fossil fuels for the rest of the country," Norton said. "Most federal office space that is located throughout the country and in the territories can benefit from the sun for all or part of the year. Over time, solar power could become the most efficient way to provide energy to federal buildings in many locations."

According to Paul Chistolini, deputy commissioner of the Public Buildings Service at GSA, some federal facilities are already using solar power.

"We have one of the largest GSA photovoltaic operations in the country out at our Suitland, Md. [Federal Center] operation," Chistolini said. "The capacity is 100 kilowatts, that's the equivalent of having 1,000 100-watt lightbulbs."

Another photovoltaic project is planned for the former Naval Surface Warfare Center in White Oak, Md., where GSA is building a $600,000 facility for the Food and Drug Administration.

"This bill is a mechanism to try and encourage GSA, as well as other federal agencies, to look at photovoltaic technology and apply it where it makes sense, even to the point of using it where it will help the development of the technology," Chistolini said.

GSA uses other alternative energy sources in many of buildings it owns and manages, including energy efficient windows, different methods for heating water, and solar heaters at some remote Border Patrol stations, Chistolini explained.

"We have different strategies for different economic locations," Chistolini said. "Out in California they generate a lot of electricity by wind power…and as the unit costs go down out in California, we buy electricity that's generated by this wind power. At other locations we will aggregate all the federal demand for electricity and buy it in larger quantities and thereby get a better price."

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