Obama’s Plan for Energy-Efficient Federal Buildings Powered by Clean Energy


(Source: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

(Source: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Just as big businesses across the country, like Walgreens and Wal-Mart, have been installing solar panels on their roofs and cutting costs with energy efficiency, so too has the federal government.

Detailing his climate action plan during a speech at Georgetown University on June 25, President Obama called for federal leadership in energy efficiency and clean energy. Given the size of the federal government and the fact that it is the largest energy consumer in the United States, the energy savings and emissions reductions resulting from clean energy and energy efficiency upgrades could be considerable.

In 2010 the government leased or owned 500,000 buildings that contributed to the federal government’s 1.5 percent share of the nation’s annual energy use and greenhouse-gas emissions. To power the more than 3 billion square feet of federal office space, the government spends a staggering $7 billion per year. Recognizing the opportunities for energy and cost savings, President Obama laid out clean energy and energy-efficiency initiatives for federal buildings in his Climate Action Plan.

President Obama’s plan raises the federal government’s renewable-energy goal from 7.5 percent to 20 percent by 2020, meaning that 20 percent of the electricity consumed by federal agencies must come from renewable sources either through on-site generation, renewable power purchases, or renewable-energy certificates, or RECs.

On energy efficiency, President Obama’s plan does not name a new energy intensity—or energy use per square foot—goal but it does look to strengthen ongoing efficiency efforts through standardizing federal building codes, increasing the ability to manage energy consumption within federal facilities, and partnering with the private sector to create standardized contracts for energy-efficiency investments.

Fortunately, the federal government’s energy-intensity and renewable-energy goals are within reach. In her June 27 testimony before the House Subcommittees on Oversight and Energy, Department of Energy Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency Kathleen Hogan stated that the federal government had met 7.1 percent of its electricity needs with renewable-energy sources, exceeding its goal of 5 percent for 2012. Compared to 2003, the federal government had achieved more than a 20 percent reduction in energy use per square foot in 2012. These efforts have led to a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions and demonstrate the importance of energy policies that drive continued efficiency upgrades and clean energy deployment.

Aside from overarching federal energy targets, there are two initiatives that can significantly impact energy efficiency and renewable-energy efforts at the federal level: agency-level energy goals and energy-savings performance contracts. These initiatives have already contributed to the federal government’s overall renewable-energy and energy-efficiency strategy, but there is a need for continued efforts on both fronts.

The Department of Defense has become a leader in setting aggressive energy policies that prioritize clean energy consumption at the agency level and could influence other departments to set their own targets. As the federal government’s largest energy consumer, the Defense Department accounts for about half of all federal electricity consumption and therefore has the potential to meet half of the federal energy-intensity and renewable-energy requirements by 2020. In 2009 the department updated its energy-performance goals to include a requirement that it produce or procure 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, but it will have to step up its efforts to achieve that and other energy goals in the ascribed timetable.

According to the Defense Department’s June 2013 Annual Energy Management report, it failed to meet federal renewable-energy or energy-intensity goals during FY 2012. Despite an energy-intensity target of 21 percent, the Defense Department only reduced facility energy intensity by 17.7 percent in 2012, and only 4 percent of the department’s electricity use came from renewable sources, compared to a target of 5 percent. When total renewable-energy production is considered rather than consumption alone, 9.6 percent of the Defense Department’s electricity came from renewable sources, which counts toward its 25 percent by 2025 goal.

Fortunately, the department’s renewed commitment to increase renewable-energy generation capacity on Army, Navy, and Air Force installations from the current 132 megawatts to 3 gigawatts by 2025 will move the department closer to its renewable-energy goal. In addition, this new commitment could create a “green” standard for renewable-energy deployment among federal agencies and encourage those that are lagging behind to expand their efforts.

Another factor that could spur greater energy-efficiency and renewable-energy use is the energy-savings performance contract, or ESPC. Energy-savings performance contracts are public-private partnerships that allow the federal government to make energy-efficiency upgrades or install renewable-energy technologies to federal buildings at a net-zero cost since project financing is repaid through energy cost savings over the life of the project. Existing in one form or another since the Carter administration, energy-savings contracts have been an effective bipartisan tool to reduce energy use and create jobs, especially during tough economic times. To date, ESPCs have provided cumulative energy cost savings of $7.2 billion and stimulated more than $2.72 billion in energy-efficiency and renewable-energy investments.

The Bush administration championed energy-savings performance contracts through legislation, such as the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which permanently reauthorized and facilitated their use, and President Obama has continued to build upon those efforts. In 2011 the White House challenged federal agencies to enter into $2 billion in energy-savings performance contracts by the end of 2013. As of June 2013 federal agencies went beyond the stated goal and identified $2.3 billion worth of projects, highlighting the desire within the government for ESPCs and energy upgrades.

Despite that desire, ESPCs are underutilized partly due to lack of education and awareness among federal agencies, President Obama’s $2 billion challenge, however, raised the profile of ESPCs and gave federal agencies an achievable goal to work toward. The president should continue to promote the use of ESPCs by issuing a new and even more ambitious challenge.

The new federal renewable-energy and energy-efficiency initiatives set forth in President Obama’s Climate Action Plan build upon previous goals and demonstrate a commitment to federal leadership. Energy goals at the agency level, such as those at the Department of Defense, can ensure that the federal government continues to move toward its energy-intensity and renewable-energy targets. Further, the continued use of energy-savings performance contracts will be key to driving greater reductions in energy intensity and scaling up renewable-energy use.

Mari Hernandez is a Research Associate on the Energy team at the Center for American Progress.

11 Responses to Obama’s Plan for Energy-Efficient Federal Buildings Powered by Clean Energy

  1. David Goldstein says:

    Okay, I realize that it is beyond utterly insignificant energy-wise but…it strikes me that Obama’s unwillingness to re-install solar panels on the White House is an eerily potent indication of the stunning and permeating malaise with which our nation has (un) met the climate challenge. Really, it is incredible that after almost 5 years in office, the President is terrified (let’s call it what it is) to take this small but meaningful action. Shame. Deep shame.

  2. Spec says:

    Why don’t we have PV solar panels on the whitehouse yet? They said they would do it. I don’t see what the downside is. It would be a nice ‘leading by example’ thing to do.

  3. fj says:

    One hundred percent by 2020 would make a lot more sense considering the extremely dangerous and accelerating climate crisis.

  4. fj says:

    Rapid net zero design and retrofitts with broad deployment is the true positive disruptive way to proceed to battle the accelerating climate change crisis.

    Public private initiatives can achieve this.

  5. fj says:

    Rapid net zero transport and transit design with broad deployment is much easier.

  6. fj says:

    Net zero deployment on any significant scale at developed world expectation levels — practicality, comfort, low cost, ease-of-use, and performance — will topple the house of cards of fossil fuel dependency.

  7. fj says:

    Significant net zero deployment existed at one time in China where about half the people used bicycles.

    Instead of modernizing this modality to meet developed world expectations they started moving to cars which was a grave mistake.

    Currently, only a half billion Chinese use bikes, roughly twice the number of US cars.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    He’s just channeling his inner Ronnie Raygun. Of course, Jimmy Carter would be a far better choice, but the Rightwing Thought Controllers have vilified him, while deifying Raygun, who set America’s self-destruction in train. An Upside Down World to be sure.

  9. Superman1 says:

    If we want to avoid the impending catastrophe, your 2020 target has to be set for far more than Federal buildings.

  10. fj says:


    And the scale of which will be the greatest venture of all times.

  11. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Congratulations President for your innovative plan for Plan for Energy-Efficient Federal Buildings Powered by Clean Energy. Infact present Government buildings even in developing countries consume lot of energy by way of Air-conditioning,lighting etc.
    I wish Indian Government will adopt energy efficient buildings in future with natural cooling and heating methods used in the past.

    The Eastgate Centre is a shopping centre and office block in central Harare,Zimbabwe whose architect is Mick Pearce. Designed to be ventilated and cooled by entirely natural means, it was probably the first building in the world to use natural cooling to this level of sophistication. It opened in 1996 on Robert Mugabe Avenue and Second Street, and provides 5,600 m² of retail space, 26,000 m² of office space and parking for 450 cars.
    The Eastgate Centre’s design is a deliberate move away from the “big glass block”. Glass office blocks are typically expensive to maintain at a comfortable temperature, needing substantial heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. They tend to recycle air, in an attempt to keep the expensively conditioned atmosphere inside, leading to high levels of air pollution in the building. Artificial air-conditioning systems are high-maintenance, and Zimbabwe has the additional problem that the original system and most spare parts have to be imported, squandering foreign exchange reserves.
    Mick Pearce, the architect, therefore took an alternative approach. Because of its altitude, Harare has a temperate climate despite being in the tropics, and the typical daily temperature swing is 10 or 14 °C. This makes a mechanical or passive cooling system a viable alternative to artificial air-conditioning
    Passive cooling works by storing heat in the day and venting it at night as temperatures drop.
    • Start of day: the building is cool.
    • During day: machines and people generate heat, and the sun shines. Heat is absorbed by the fabric of the building, which has a high heat capacity, so that the temperature inside increases but not greatly.
    • Evening: temperatures outside drop. The warm internal air is vented through chimneys, assisted by fans but also rising naturally because it is less dense, and drawing in denser cool air at the bottom of the building.
    • Night: this process continues, cold air flowing through cavities in the floor slabs until the building’s fabric has reached the ideal temperature to start the next day.
    Passively cooled, Eastgate uses only 10% of the energy needed by a similar conventionally cooled building. 1
    Eastgate is emulated by London’s Portcullis House (2001), opposite the Palace of Westminster. The distinctive giant chimneys on which the system relies are clearly visible.
    To work well, the building must be very carefully designed. After computer simulation and analysis, the engineering firm Ove Arup, gave Pearce a set of rules.
    They said that no direct sunlight must fall on the external walls at all and the north façade [direction of summer sun] window-to-wall area must not exceed 25%. They asked for a balance between artificial and external light to minimize energy consumption and heat gain. They said all windows must be sealed because of noise pollution and unpredictable wind pressures and temperatures, relying on ducted ventilation. Above all, windows must be light filters, controlling glare, noise and security. 2
    To help with this last, the windows have adjustable blinds, but Pearce also used deep overhangs to keep direct sun off windows and walls. Deep eaves are a traditional solution in Africa, shading the walls completely from the high summer sun, while allowing the lower winter sun to warm the building in the morning.
    Two massive power blackouts occurring on consecutive days last summer in India1 have highlighted the difficulties developing nations face when vulnerable power grids are taxed by the growing use of air conditioners.
    One factor in the blackouts is a weak monsoon season in India, which resulted in below-normal water levels at some hydroelectric dams and less electricity to go around. Escalating consumer demand for air conditioners likewise may be implicated. Catherine Wolfram, co-director of the Energy Institute at Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley, points to data showing that the increase in energy demand between the hottest and coldest months of the year among the 16 million residents of Delhi, India, more than doubled between 2000 and 2009. In a 2012 essay on this research she concluded, “A large part of the explanation for this is that air conditioner sales have increased dramatically.”
    The developing world is home to most of the world’s hottest and fastest-growing cities—38 of the world’s 50 largest cities are in developing countries, and most of the 30 warmest of these cities are in developing countries. These countries also have a rapidly expanding middle class that can now afford the amenities that citizens in the developed world have long taken for granted. High on that list is the air conditioner.
    India and other nations in South Asia and Southeast Asia are on track to record the world’s biggest increases in demand for air conditioning. Sales of air conditioners in India rose an estimated 17% over the past three years, with sales rising fastest among residential users.6 Michael Sivak, a research professor at the University of Michigan, estimated the potential demand for cooling in Mumbai alone at about 24% of the entire U.S. demand.
    In addition to placing strains on nations’ power grids, air conditioners pose threats to the environment and environmental health, primarily as contributors to global warming. “The amount of electricity that’s used for air conditioning is a huge part of an energy load for most countries, and it’s going up,” says Durwood Zaelke, president of the nonprofit Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development. “You’re putting out more climate pollutants as you’re burning more coal or gas to run the air conditioners, and you’re also putting out the greenhouse gases that serve as the refrigerants in the equipment.”
    According to Cox, approximately 80% of the impact of air conditioning on climate results from the draw on fossil fuel–fired power plants. The remaining 20% comes from the units’ refrigerants, the liquid agents within the coils that are used to cool and dehumidify the air.
    Different types of refrigerants have been used in air conditioners over the years. The discovery that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are major contributors to ozone-layer breakdown9prompted an international response that led to the creation of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which went into effect in 1989 and eventually eliminated production of CFCs in 1996.10 The CFCs were replaced by hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), a transitional fluorocarbon with a reduced impact on ozone depletion to be used only while companies developed better coolants. Today these replacements are, themselves, being phased out11 and replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs).
    Here are some traditional methods used to cool the buildings as well as heat it. The west spends more energy on heating while the east spends more energy on cooling.
    Something as simple as using a white elastomeric roof coating can keep your home 7 degrees cooler. Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations like the Egyptians and Greeks used this technique to keep their homes cooler. If you are considering this, review the cost of an elastomeric coating, estimated to be about 50 cents a square foot, balanced against the cost of air conditioning.
    A whole attic house fan also reduces the need for air conditioning. estimates that the cost to use a whole house fan at one to five cents an hour, compared to 25 cents an hour for air conditioning. Consider where you would locate an attic fan and if the air flow would help cool the entire house. Also, an attic fan does best when the outside air temperature is cooler than that in the house so it is more effective in the early morning and evening.

    Passive solar homes are designed to catch and hold heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer. For example, they have large, south-facing windows and interior surfaces that retain heat like tile or concrete. Trees are planted to strategically shade the house in summer and block the winter wind. Deep overhangs and eaves also shelter the house. If you are considering passive solar strategies, review your existing home layout and capitalize on those features which would allow you to take advantage of the sun. Or, if you are building a new home, seek out solar heating home plans that incorporate features like these.

    The buildings in the Iranian desert regions are constructed according to the specific climatic conditions and differ with those built in other climates. The desert buildings are equipped with air traps, arched roofed, water reservoirs with arched domes and ice stores for the preservation of ice. The operation of modern coolers is similar to the old Iranian air traps which were built at the entrance of the house over underground water reservoirs or ponds built inside the house.

    Lofty walls, narrow and dry streets, highly elevated air traps, big water reservoirs and arched roofed chambers, are the outstanding features of desert towns in Iran

    I have a fan and ceiling fans. We’ve been putting the fan in front of an open door in the hopes it will pull out the hot air during the day and pull in the cool air at night, obviously turning the fan the appropriate direction.

    Close curtains and blinds during the day and don’t open windows or doors open thinking it’ll let in cool air. If you can paint the outside of your house white as this will reflect the suns light and heat.

    In 70s itself I designed a cooling system. Usually in South India people use mud pots for water storage. These mud pots have a cover(concave shaped). It has about 1foot diameter and i cm thickness. When inverted it will have convex shape. On a flat roof these CLAY COVERS will be arranged side by side with gaps filled with mud. These are white washed(calcium coated). One gets on an average 5 degrees Celsius drop from ambient temperature. The principle is white colour reflects then the sunrays have to pass through mud and air trapped between clay cover and roof. Still air acts as INSULATOR. These clay covers can be made locally.

    One more thing for tropics to get cool. Put a Polyethylene sheet on the roof and spread thin layer of sand and soil. Plant horizontal root spreading plants like Coriander. They won’t spread deep root and the greenery reduces temperature inside the house considerably. During rainy season the whole thing can be rolled and removed. Also convex shaped clay covers coated with white wash reduce temperature considerably because of white color reflection of sunlight, thickness of the clay cover and air trapped between the clay cover and roof which acts as insulator.
    I learnt that out of 2700 MW power per day for Mumbai 1000 MW accounts for Airconditioning. Can’t future Government offices be more Eco friendly and less power consumption?

    Traditional architecture offers promise with energy conservation and needs to be adopted in the modern architecture.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India