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How agencies will shrink their carbon footprints

Mar. 8, 2010 - 06:00AM   |  
By TIM KAUFFMAN   |   Comments
The Transportation Department set the lowest greenhouse gas emissions reduction target since most of its emissions come from energy-intensive air traffic control systems that are all but untouchable. Above, air-traffic controllers scan the skies while standing in the traffic control tower at Washington Dulles International Airport.
The Transportation Department set the lowest greenhouse gas emissions reduction target since most of its emissions come from energy-intensive air traffic control systems that are all but untouchable. Above, air-traffic controllers scan the skies while standing in the traffic control tower at Washington Dulles International Airport. (File / Agence France-Presse)

The federal government's carbon footprint is big: 51.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. That's roughly twice the size of Walmart's carbon footprint and about one-ninth that of California.

And with a new Obama administration goal of reducing the government's overall carbon footprint by 28 percent, agencies are taking many varied approaches to track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to match their unique circumstances, according to numerous interviews.

Example: The Housing and Urban Development Department has one of the smallest carbon footprints of any Cabinet department nearly all its emissions come from its headquarters building in Washington. It also has the most aggressive goal for cutting emissions: 47 percent by 2020.

In contrast, the Transportation Department set the lowest target of any department 12.3 percent since most of its emissions come from energy-intensive air traffic control systems that are all but untouchable. "They don't make Energy Star radar systems," said Marguerite Downey, manager of environmental and energy policy at Transportation.

To derive its 21 percent target, the Agriculture Department assumes it will cut energy consumption by 3 percent annually through 2015 as required by a 2007 law and then by another 1.5 percent annually between 2015 and 2020. Jeff Goodman, chief of Agriculture's environmental management division, said the department's goal is realistic, since cutting consumption will be much harder in those out years.

"The lower-hanging fruit is gone. It's sort of like going on a diet, and trying to lose the last five pounds is a lot harder than losing the first 10 pounds," Goodman said.

Since setting the targets in early February, agencies have been debating how to meet the goals. Many of those details will be included in sustainability plans agencies must submit to the White House in June.

Federal Times is the first to report the size of the carbon footprint for the government and most of its Cabinet-level departments.

Some agencies say they'll consolidate or close facilities to cut energy consumption. The Education Department, for instance, intends to close two data centers and a warehouse.

Others say they will focus on generating on-site renewable energy. Reducing energy demand is more challenging for an agency such as the Veterans Affairs Department, where hospitals run nonstop. So a large part of VA's plan to cut its emissions by 30 percent hinges on weaning the department off fossil fuels, said Ed Bradley, director of VA's Office of Asset Enterprise Management.

VA is launching many projects to use renewable energy at its facilities, including solar photovoltaic arrays, geothermal heat pumps, wind turbines and biomass cogeneration plants. It's also installing between 70 and 80 fueling stations on VA properties that will dispense E-85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petroleum. E-85 vehicles make up more than a third of VA's fleet, but in many cases, the cars run on regular gasoline because of limited access to the alternative fuel.

Some agencies, such as the Defense and Energy departments, say they'll deploy a variety of options to generate renewable energy and cut energy consumption.

Ingrid Kolb, director of Energy's Office of Management, said the requirement to track and cut emissions has forced the department to take a more holistic approach to facility maintenance and improvement projects. Previously, proposals were evaluated and approved site by site.

"We're going to look at those projects as a portfolio. We're going to determine which projects would provide us the greatest return on investment, would provide us with the greatest reduction in emissions," Kolb said.

Energy said it doesn't know how much its own initiatives will cost, but said a lot can be done with little or no expense. The department will push employees to change their personal habits in ways that will save energy and reduce emissions, such as teleconferencing rather than flying to meetings, turning off computers when not in use and making sure employees know whom to call if they see an outside light burning brightly in the middle of the day.

"We really want to do the best that we can to get as much mileage out of the free and low-cost initiatives ... to get savings," said Peter O'Konski, director of facility policy.

The Treasury Department has identified 45 projects that will help it meet its 33 percent emissions-reduction target. The projects range from using wind energy at the U.S. Mint in Denver to changing the blower motors on its air-conditioning and heating systems so they operate at more energy-efficient variable speeds.

More than half of Treasury's emissions are generated by the department's largest bureau, the IRS. Nearly all of the rest is tied to the Mint and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which combined have six manufacturing facilities that produce all U.S. currency.

Most emissions reductions at those facilities will come from improving business processes, said Dan Tangherlini, assistant Treasury secretary for management. For instance, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing plans to install a new wastewater recycling system this year that will recycle about 95 percent of the water used in its printing process, saving millions of gallons of water each year.

"As you dive into this, as you make targeted investments and you try to improve the efficiency of your operations, there are the effects of reducing emissions, reducing energy demand and reducing costs," Tangherlini said.

Operational challenges

In some agencies, operational constraints pose an almost insurmountable obstacle. Nearly all the energy consumed at the Transportation Department is generated by the Federal Aviation Administration, and most of that comes from large equipment shelters that house radar systems and other energy-intensive devices FAA needs to perform its missions, Transportation's Downey said.

Transportation's emissions-reduction plan hinges on doing as much as it can outside of those FAA equipment shelters. It will cut electricity consumption in non-FAA facilities 10 percent beyond existing federal mandates between 2015 and 2020, and it will double the amount of renewable energy generated onsite by 2020, Downey said.

Transportation also is taking steps to reduce energy in its operations. For instance, it's installing software on its computers that will enable them to shut down at the end of the day, restart as needed to install security patches and other upgrades, then shut down again.

It will also keep pursuing additional energy savings opportunities. "Everyone agrees this is our minimum goal. We all want to exceed this goal," she said.

The largest single contributor of greenhouse gas emissions at the Labor Department is its national network of nearly 1,800 buildings at more than 120 Job Corps centers. Each center comprises multiple buildings on large campuses, many of which were old military installations donated to Labor, said Charlotte Hayes, deputy assistant secretary for policy at Labor.

Many of the job training programs performed at the centers are energy-intensive, such as cooking, automotive repair and manufacturing processes. In evaluating how to track and reduce emissions at the centers, Labor realized it needs to keep a closer watch on how much energy is being used at the centers so it can take action when usage spikes, Hayes said.

The Defense Department faces its own demand challenges. The Army and Marine Corps are growing their forces, which translates to more energy users. And as troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan begin to return home, Defense will experience energy surges at training centers, dorm rooms and other facilities now largely vacant. Overseas military operations aren't included in Defense's emissions totals.

Efforts to improve the quality of life for service members also add to the department's footprint. The Marine Corps is air-conditioning facilities that historically have gone without; television sets are being installed in individual dorm rooms rather than in common rooms; and barracks now feature more private sleeping quarters with individual bathrooms.

"We are going in essence in an opposite direction, so the burden is greater for us to figure out how to reduce demand," said Maureen Sullivan, director of environmental management at the Pentagon.

Despite the challenges, Defense set an aggressive 34 percent emissions-reduction target, and Sullivan said she's optimistic the department will achieve the goal. She recalled when President Clinton issued an executive order in 1993 requiring all agencies to cut in half the amount of toxic chemicals released into the environment within five years.

"We achieved 70 percent in three years. So I have great faith in the creativity of our folks to figure out how to get this done," she said.

Targeting individual buildings

Some agencies say they can make significant progress by focusing on individual buildings.

The Harry S. Truman Building in Washington accounts for about 60 percent of the domestic energy consumed by the State Department each year. The rest is generated by data centers and a handful of regional passport offices.

To reach its 20 percent emissions target, State will tackle the three biggest contributors to its facility electric bills: computers, climate control and lighting, said Harry Mahar, director of State's Office of Facility Management Services. It plans to use software programs to reduce the number of computer servers needed to operate the department's systems, install more efficient lighting in its buildings and upgrade the heating and air-conditioning system at the headquarters building as part of a larger ongoing renovation.

HUD has set the most aggressive reduction target of any federal agency, although it has the luxury of focusing nearly all its effort on its headquarters building, which is the only facility HUD manages.

Under a $36 million Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC) with Honeywell, HUD will make a series of energy-saving upgrades to the Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, which opened in 1968. HUD plans to install solar panels and vegetation on the roof, replace nearly 1,600 windows and install a more energy-efficient heating system.

"The majority of the goals that we set are really hinged upon the completion of the ESPC project," said Jacob Weisman, a building management specialist at HUD.

In contrast, the Interior Department has many historic buildings and open structures in its inventory. That will make reducing emissions more difficult than if the agency primarily had a few large office buildings, said Willie Taylor, director of Interior's Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance.

Interior's 20 percent target is "a bold goal that will require us to fight for each ton" of reduced emissions, he said.

Graphic:" target="_blank">See the percentage reduction goals for each department

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