Jonathan Powers, the federal environmental executive at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, is responsible for pushing agencies to reduce energy use and become more environmentally friendly.
He said that while he was in the Army, he learned that good leaders lead by example, and he is pushing agencies to do the same as they try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and their environmental footprint.
Powers has been in the position for six months after transferring from the Army, where he promoted renewable energy projects at the base level.
In a Sept. 25 interview, Powers said he is optimistic that agencies will be able to meet tough mandates even during challenging budget times.
Q: How are agencies doing reaching sustainability goals while they are in tight budgets and facing cuts?
A: They are doing a lot in a challenging budget time. What they have been able to do really successfully is leverage that challenging budget time to explain that what they are doing is a smart investment. While what we are doing has an environmental impact and social impact, it actually has a tremendous economic impact, and that’s why you see big corporations doing these type of improvements, as well.
So it’s helping the folks who are trying to sell these projects within their departments frame them in a sort of economic message, and then it’s letting them look and say we can still reach these goals and tap into the innovation of industry by using these alternative-financing and third-party tools. It is spurring a lot of innovation, and it’s also spurring a lot of collaboration — where agencies, if they think have solved the problem, they have been more than willing to share that with others in the federal family.
Q: Despite these challenges, do you think agencies will reach their sustainability goals?
A: I think we are doing really well. The thing that has been one of the biggest changes — and you know the president has called on the agencies to lead by examples in these areas — you have seen the senior leaders lay out their sustainability plans and really do that long-term planning that is needed to solve those problems. Just that exercise in its own right has been truly beneficial for the agencies, and I think we are going to see that continue and improve going forward.
Q: How are agencies doing on reducing both direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, and what are the challenges that lie ahead for them?
A: We are on target for both, which is great. I think that those targets have — which by the way, a lot of the targets are set by the agencies themselves — they have agencies beginning to think through the impact of everything they are doing and realizing that, ‘Hey, maybe we can actually reduce our vehicle fleet significantly,’ or [asking] ‘What can we do at this installation to bring in electric buses to be part of a commuter route and save not only energy costs but greenhouse gases?’ You are really starting to see them think outside the box with these efforts.
Q: Are agencies making any progress in reducing supply-chain emissions and emissions from contractors?
A: One of the things I think has been most successful in this is that you are seeing a lot of interagency collaboration and discussion around a series of working groups that are diving into this.
Instead of us bull-rushing into a solution, they are beginning to pilot some ideas that allow us to talk to our partners on the contracting side — whether it be the small businesses or the large business that we connect with — that they both understand where we are going with this and they understand how to be a partner with us. That’s one of the most complicated of all the challenges we have. But because we have seen a lot of increased collaboration, we are going to come up with some interesting solutions and, I think, innovative solutions.
Q: How are agencies doing incorporating third-party financing into projects and trying to reach the goal the president set out in December to award $2 billion in energy savings performance contracts over the next two years?
A: There is a tremendous amount of enthusiasm from the agencies to the goal the president put out there, and I think we’ve been tracking them monthly and talking to senior sustainability officers to ensure that we are on track to reach those goals. The good news is that we are on track.
The great thing the challenge has done is help socialize some of the departments that weren’t traditionally looking at these tools to the strength of these third-party financing options. Hopefully, through that we will be able to do more and more.