DOE starts at the top in bid to cut emissions, set good example

Correction appended.

To gain access to the latest energy advancement at the Department of Energy's headquarters complex in Washington, D.C., you must travel a maze of hallways and find the door marked with the cryptic code "1E029."

Once through the door, you start a dizzying, claustrophobic climb up a metal spiral staircase. You pass what might or might not be a working security camera lying on the concrete floor and reach an imposing metal door.

When a DOE staffer pushed through that final door last week, the group she was chaperoning was greeted by a cold blast of late-afternoon air and 25,000 square feet of glimmering white polyvinyl chloride (PVC) sheathing on the department West Building's newly installed "cool roof."

The new roof is one very visible way that DOE is going about achieving President Obama's goal of reducing the government's greenhouse gas emissions. The White House first directed agencies to create sustainability plans in an October 2009 executive order. In January, Obama announced a governmentwide goal of cutting direct emissions -- such as those from purchased electricity and fuel use -- by 28 percent over the next 10 years. The White House also aims to decrease indirect emissions by 13 percent over the next decade.

The executive branch's 50-plus agencies submitted plans for how they will meet the White House's sustainability goals last fall. The next step in the process will take place on Jan. 31, when agencies are due to submit their first greenhouse gas emissions inventories.

Last week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said she was looking forward to reviewing the carbon footprint assessments that are set to be released.

"It is important that we have a clear and transparent idea of where federal agencies stand with regard to our energy use and emissions in order to chart a course for improving efficiency and verify we are making progress over time," Collins said. "For this reason, I intend to reintroduce legislation to require that all executive branch agencies set clear goals in order to chart progress in this critical area."

The new roof at DOE, which was unveiled by Energy Secretary Steven Chu last month, uses the white coloring of the 60-millimeter-thick PVC material to reflect the sun's heat and light, which in turn helps improve building efficiency and therefore reduce cooling costs.


Not that that was actually happening last week.

On a chilly day when pools of ice had formed on the roof of the West Building, the air conditioning system (which is a major source of energy consumption in any building) was not running. But the dividends will come this summer.

A typical roof can reach 150 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit on a hot, sunny day and the dark-colored materials that make up most roofs will absorb that light and heat, causing the temperature to rise on the top floor of a building. That in turn forces air conditioning units to work overtime.

Roland Risser, the manager of DOE's Building Technologies Program, estimates that the cool roof on DOE's West Building will reflect enough heat and light to save the agency $2,000 a year in energy costs. And when the department installs a cool roof on the headquarters' 66,000-square-foot South Building this spring, DOE will save an additional $6,000 a year.

For that amount of savings at minimal incremental cost (Risser said light, reflective roof sheathing is virtually the same price as the standard darker sheathing), it might surprise some to learn that cool roofs are not a particularly new invention.

In fact, DOE has been pushing the private sector to install cool roofs for well over a decade.

But DOE never thought to take its own advice until Arthur Rosenfeld -- a former member of the California Energy Commission and a cool roof advocate on the West Coast -- showed up at DOE headquarters last year with an aerial photograph of the building and asked agency officials, including Risser, where its cool roof was.

"Who looks at a roof?" Risser said last week. "You're so used to looking out. Sometimes you need to look within."

Cut emissions, save cash

DOE headquarters is not the first department building with a cool roof. Several exist at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and in a few other locations.

But Chu has embraced the idea and, according to Risser, has been preaching the benefits of cool roofs to other agency heads.

Plans are now in place to make cool roofs a standard part of DOE roof replacements in the coming years. But not every building will get one, since the cost benefits fall off in cooler climates.

"Roofs are replaced on average every 15 or 20 years," Risser said. "By the time we get through that cycle, every [roof] where it is cost-effective, it will be in place."

In the grand scheme of sustainability, putting a white roof on a DOE building is a relatively easy fix (although keeping that roof clean and reflective is a whole other issue that Risser and his colleagues are now working on). The most challenging aspect of Obama's sustainability effort may be reducing indirect emissions, which include sources such as contractor and supplier activities and employee commutes.

Measuring indirect emissions can be a tricky and somewhat inexact science. Many agencies have said they plan to reach their goals by reducing business travel and providing incentives for employees to carpool or take public transportation to work.

"While it has been a challenge for agencies to develop a full inventory of indirect emissions, that doesn't mean it's not worth doing," Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said last week. "It's clear that the things the federal government does every day in going about its business lead to indirect emissions of greenhouse gases, and some of those activities are either wasteful or not necessary."

Carper said that the private sector has shown that it can successfully gauge its carbon footprint and has used those efforts to lower its impact on the environment, while also reducing operating costs and bringing a better level of service to its customers.

"I think the American people are looking to their government for a similar approach," Carper said.

Correction: Roland Risser is the manager of DOE's Building Technologies Program; an earlier version mistakenly identified the program as part of EPA.

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