VA to continue work on energy efficiency

Health care facilities prove especially challenging for reducing energy consumption.

The Veterans Affairs Department has taken steps to reduce energy and water consumption in its facilities, but still has room for improvement, witnesses told a House panel on Wednesday.

"The VA has unique challenges given the fact that it runs health care centers, which have extreme demands in terms of water, air, energy and data management," said Richard Kidd, program manager of the Energy Department's federal energy management program, in testimony before the Veterans Affairs Committee. "And all this has to be done in an environment that is conducive to healing."

VA ranks sixth in energy use and third in water consumption governmentwide as a result of the types of buildings it oversees. A particular challenge, witnesses said, is developing energy-efficient procurement practices. For instance, food and other resources when purchased as part of a large contract can't be sourced locally to reduce transportation costs and energy consumption. The department is committed to developing greener purchasing practices through a centralized procurement plan, according to James Sullivan, director of VA's Office of Asset Enterprise Management.

Witnesses also highlighted the importance of sharing information across the health care sector and evaluating energy use and existing conservation programs in facilities to avoid duplicating efforts. The department is required to assess the energy practices of 25 percent of its buildings annually to identify strengths and weaknesses.

"The key is being able to properly manage," said Tom Hicks, executive director of the U.S. Green Building Council, "and to be able to properly manage you need to be able to properly measure."

VA also could look internally for solutions by engaging employees in forums to discuss and vet suggested improvements, witnesses said. The department is developing best practices for energy efficiency to distribute to employees in the next few weeks, according to Sullivan. The plan for implementing these practices will include a program that gives employees incentives to follow the recommendations, he said.

Committee members applauded the department's efforts, but cautioned officials to keep VA's mission in mind.

"The VA was allocated $405 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to accelerate critical programs to reduce the environmental footprint of the department," said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., committee chairman, in his opening statement. "We need to ensure that the very specific needs of our veterans are being met at hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, and make certain their care is not degraded or impacted by the efforts in becoming more energy efficient."