GSA’s “Carbon Neutral by 2030” Goal

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) established new energy-related requirements and standards for federal buildings and for the agencies that oversee them. Specifically, it required GSA to establish an Office of Federal High-Performance Green Buildings to coordinate green building information and activities within GSA and with other federal agencies. Since then, GSA has set the ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. To reach that goal—with the help of funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—the agency is investing a whopping $4.5 billion in existing buildings, with much of that money going toward making the structures more energy efficient. In addition, GSA is focusing its new construction efforts on high-performance green buildings.

Now that GSA is about five years into the timeline, it seems useful to look at what the agency has done and learned from these efforts. Writing in the June issue of Building Operating Management, Rita Tatum offers a review of GSA’s efforts to date in the following eight areas:

1. High-Performance Exteriors. Tatum cites GSA’s modernization of the Edith Green–Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon—which we profiled here last week—as an example of how the agency is using new types of shading systems to minimize solar heat gain, restricting the ratio of glazing to overall wall area, using light reflectors to increase daylighting, optimizing thermal efficiency with triple-glazed windows, and installing advanced, optically enhanced light systems that adapt to available daylight. GSA is using additional high-performance exterior elements in other projects; these include building envelope upgrades that target both thermal and moisture problems, cool roof technology that minimizes energy use, and vegetative roofing.

2. High-Performance HVAC Systems. GSA is installing geothermal ground wells at the Bishop Henry Whipple Federal Building in Fort Snelling, Minn., and chilled beam technology for cooling at the U.S. Courthouse in Bakersfield, Calif. In Chicago, the agency is installing modern HVAC systems that use occupancy and carbon dioxide sensors in three federal buildings.

3. Smarter Lighting. The agency is exploring a variety of ways to increase lighting energy efficiency. Rather than just relamping with more efficient lamps and ballasts, it is installing new fixtures (including more task lighting), often in new locations and with some personal controls. It has found that daylighting controls should be integrated into lighting solutions around building perimeters. And it has discovered that it can increase the amount of light an area gets from a constant amount of energy by increasing ceiling, wall, and floor reflectances.

4. Building Controls and “Smart Meters.” By connecting smart meters to building automation systems and creating building operating models, GSA has been able to reduce energy use as well as track usage and ensure that these energy savings persist. The agency therefore has made these systems a key element of major renovation projects.

5. Sustainable Facilities Tool. One goal of GSA’s sustainability effort is to share what it has learned. Its free, online Sustainable Facilities Tool gives facility managers a way to identify and prioritize cost-effective green building strategies for their own properties.

6. Solar Power Savings. Renewable energy is another major focus of GSA investment. The agency has installed 35 acres of ground-, roof- and carport-mounted photovoltaic panels that have been tied into the existing electrical distribution system at the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood, Colo., to provide more than 15% of the campus’s electricity. It also has installed rooftop solar panels at the Bean Federal Center in Indianapolis, where some of these panels are serving as a solar laboratory at which GSA and Sandia National Laboratory are researching four different types of solar panels to determine which are most effective in the Midwest.

7. Green Proving Ground. This program uses GSA’s massive real estate portfolio to evaluate the viability of emerging sustainable building technologies. Its first results assess wireless sensor technology in data centers, and have shown a potential to save $61 million annually if the technology were to be applied across GSA’s entire portfolio. The program currently is evaluating five other technologies; results are expected this summer.

8. Performance Contracting. Last December, President Obama announced a major commitment to creating new energy savings via energy service performance contracts (ESPCs) at federal facilities. On March 22, GSA announced the Deep Retrofit Challenge, in which it asked energy service companies to provide the maximum energy performance savings possible for each of 30 existing buildings using ESPCs.

Is GSA’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 a realistic one? A sidebar to Tatum’s article notes that a study released last August by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory “suggests that GSA is making progress toward its energy-related mandates.” The study, which examined 22 GSA facilities, found that they used 25% less energy, had 19% lower aggregate operating costs and produced 34% fewer carbon dioxide emissions—while also reaping a 27% higher occupancy satisfaction status—than the average U.S. commercial building.

What does it all mean for landlords?  GSA is deeply committed to sustainable design and the agency’s goals are driven by law.  It is a certainty that this is not a fad but, rather a paradigm shift, one where the federal government is committed to leadership role.  Even if the Executive Office switches from Democrat to Republican we can expect this trend to continue, especially as the primary legislation driving the government’s energy efficiency goals is borne of EISA, a Bush-era Act.  Democrats and Republicans are surprisingly bi-partisan on this issue, though Republicans approach sustainability from the standpoint of energy independence—making America safer by reducing our reliance on oil-producing nations—while Democrats approach it more from an environmentalist point of view.  In either case, the GSA’s long-run trend will be to continually raise the bar on the energy efficiency requirements of its facilities, ultimately to the disadvantage of older buildings that have not been upgraded.