Federal employees may one day look out "smart windows" that darken with rising temperatures, stay warm with ultra-efficient boilers and track their workday energy use on their computer.
But getting there requires a delicate partnership between the private and public sectors, where companies provide the innovation and the government becomes a powerful and game-changing consumer.
In a recent interview, former U.S. EPA chief information officer Molly O'Neill aid the government is on the right track but will have to stay vigilant to ensure agencies know what they are buying and whether they are making progress.
"I'm the first one to admit everyone says they're green," said O'Neill, who is now vice president of government contractor CGI Federal. "Everyone wants to be green, but it's really about how you're helping to meet the mission."
CGI's Initiative for Collaborative Government recently looked into this balance, basing the first issue of its journal "Leadership" on how government leaders are working with private and nonprofit groups to achieve sustainability. In picking contractors and adopting technologies, agencies have to go beyond "checking a box," O'Neill said. They have to understand how the changes they make help them reach concrete goals.
The General Services Administration is helping with that, she said. Agencies already have picked most of the "low-lying fruit," such as switching out light bulbs; now they have to tackle more expensive renovations and behavioral changes. That includes condensing data centers, for example, and motivating employees to use less water.
"I think it's really about walking the talk and leading by example and really getting that message out there," O'Neill said. "A lot of agencies don't want to be the first to do something."
Melissa Keeley, a professor at George Washington University who is researching the greening policies at the city and state level, agreed that government entities need a trusted guide to help them adopt sustainable policies beyond issuing regulations.
"I do think that the GSA has been a real leader," Keeley said. "It's probably a good thing they are taking a close look."
Testing new technologies
GSA has taken the role of mentor for years, increasing its efforts when President Obama announced his goal of cutting direct greenhouse gases by 28 percent by 2020. Agencies use GSA guidance to measure emissions and determine what carbon-cutting steps they should take.
The agency announced its latest step last week. By testing 16 "sustainable" technologies -- including the aforementioned windows, boilers and computer software -- GSA will become the one-stop shop for agencies looking for guidance on how to increase their energy efficiency.
In a statement, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson made the agency's goal clear: to pave the way for tested methods and innovations.
"By using our real estate portfolio as a test bed for new technologies," Johnson said, "we can then provide further innovation in energy-efficiency standards and implement best practices that will lead the market."
GSA chose the 16 technologies out of 140 that are used throughout the agency's 9,600 properties. Those choices could provide a big boost to innovations that prove worthwhile; not only will GSA spread implementation among the buildings it controls, but other agencies will likely follow suit.
Some of the technologies have already proved their worth, such as condensing boilers, said Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED technical development at the U.S. Green Building Council. But agencies are more likely to spend taxpayer money on them if GSA gives them the green light.
"A lot of them have a relatively low adoption rate even though they are proven," Owens said. But "they haven't gone what I would consider to be mainstream at this point."
Short of 'bleeding edge'
Owens said GSA had chosen a broad list of innovations that includes both passive and active technologies. Windows with "high performance glass," for example, are passive, while a lighting system that changes with the brightness of daylight is active.
Many of the technologies also are already being used in some large buildings, meaning they are likely to pass GSA's tests, Owens said.
"I don't see anything on this list -- with the possible exception of the mesh sensor network -- that is bleeding edge," Owens said, referring to a system that actively monitors temperatures in multiple locations. "A lot of these technologies will be slam-dunk home runs."
And considering GSA's role as the government's "vanguard" for sustainability, that mix of technologies is appropriate and smart, she said. Agencies will be able to quickly adopt some of the innovations, such as switching out their HVAC system's old heat pump for the commercial ground-source heat pump.
Such renovations could come soon: A GSA spokeswoman said the agency hopes to have "some measurable results" by the end of the year.
"I'm very optimistic," O'Neill said. "They're starting to see that these things can save the agency money and so guess what? They can save the government money."
Click here for a list of the 16 technologies GSA will test.