U.S. government falls behind its energy efficiency goals as it sets new ones

By Camille von Kaenel | 07/23/2015 08:39 AM EDT

President Obama’s tweaked goals for reducing energy use within federal agencies in the next 10 years will give agencies some space to catch up, the Federal Energy Management Program head said.

Correction appended.

President Obama’s tweaked goals for reducing energy use within federal agencies in the next 10 years will give agencies some space to catch up, the Federal Energy Management Program head said.

The government fell behind some of the goals Obama set for 2016, including cutting the energy use per square foot in federal buildings 30 percent compared to 2005, or an average of 3 percent per year.


The Federal Energy Management Program helps implement the rules. Director Tim Unruh spoke at an Association of Climate Change Officers roundtable yesterday about the government’s overall progress.

The new rules, which will become active at the start of next year, were outlined in an executive order this spring (Greenwire, March 19). Many of the goals moved up from the previous version. Obama ordered greenhouse gas emissions slashed 40 percent from 2008 levels by 2025, a hike from the previous goal of 20 percent by 2020.

But the order also called for a reduction in energy use per square foot of 2.5 percent per year on average until 2025, lower than the previous goal of 3 percent.

Energy use by square foot has been on a long-term trend downward, dropping 20 percent since 2003. In the last few years, however, the trend has flattened out, falling short of the 3 percent annual reduction set out in Obama’s first executive order, statute (42 USC 8253[a]).

"We were doing pretty decent, and then it kind of hit a wall, and we aren’t entirely sure why," Unruh said.

Part of it he attributes to weather. Military service members returning home filled up facilities in the United States, boosting energy use even if those buildings implemented energy-saving measures. The metric itself might be slightly off: At the new headquarters of the General Services Administration, for example, square footage was halved but energy use was not.

‘More people and computers’

"Their use per square foot has gone up, as there’s just more people and computers in a tight space," he said.

The new rules also make it easier for federal agencies to qualify their buildings for compliance with sustainability guiding principles, which Unruh said resembled Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification. Fifteen percent of buildings must comply by 2025.

"A lot of agencies had a few buildings that took some measures, but the principles were so strict, if you only met a few, they got zero credits," he said. "The new goals shift that."

How the government measures improvements in vehicle efficiency was also tweaked in the new executive order. The old goal required a 159 percent increase in alternative fuel use in vehicles by 2015 from 2005 levels and a 30 percent cut in petroleum use. Now, the fleet must reduce its per mile greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2025. Unruh said the new metric could make counting electric vehicles easier.

"It would make some areas turn to green and some areas turn to red, but overall we’d be the same," Unruh said. "Anything we want to change we can count towards that goal."

The order did not extend the energy savings performance contracting program (ESPC), but instead required each agency to detail its annual goal for ESPC improvements. The program allowed federal agencies to improve their energy efficiency without paying the upfront costs of renovation. The contractors who completed the upgrades collected their income from the energy savings the agency benefitted from in the long term.

The goal for the total ESPC investment was $4 billion by 2016, and each project was around $17 million. This June, the Government Accountability Office found that a lack of oversight and understanding of the reporting rules allowed contractors to overstate their savings (E&ENews PM, June 18).

Unruh said yesterday he has since addressed those concerns.

Correction: An earlier version of this article listed the previous goal for slashing greenhouse gas emissions as 26 percent; it was 20 percent. And the goal for the total ESPC investment was said to be $40 billion by 2016; it is $4 billion.