Headed by Jonathan Powers, the Office of the Federal Environmental Executive is responsible for promoting sustainability and environmental stewardship throughout Federal government operations. (Jack Gruber / USA TODAY)
Saying the government should “lead by example,” President Obama has ordered federal agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2020. The man he put in charge of the effort a year ago is Jonathan Powers, 34, an Iraq War veteran. Powers, who holds the office of Federal Environmental Executive, spoke at his office across from the White House about what his military experience taught him, telecommuting, shrinking the government vehicle fleet, and solar panels on the White House (edited for space and clarity).
Q: You came from the Army. What did that military experience teach you on sustainability?
Powers: I really came to the issue of sustainability through energy security. A lot of that was from my time in Baghdad, when I was a platoon leader in 2003 and 2004. Every evening as the local Iraqis who worked in the compound would leave, we would have to move our fuel trucks, because we knew within a couple of hours ... that fuel truck would get mortared. As I really started to look at it academically, I began to better understand the implications of climate change to national security.
Q: I would imagine that it also gave you an appreciation for the fact that, while that’s a high priority, it’s never higher than the mission.
Powers: That’s right, but also that there are ways for us to optimize our mission by being more sustainable. If we could better manage our power on a forward operating base, I wouldn’t have to take a convoy out to get fuel trucks every day.
Q: Those convoys put service members at risk.
Powers: Absolutely. Also, you take people who are convoying and put them on other missions.
Q: This position isn’t new. Your office was created in the Clinton administration, right?
Powers: It was, but it’s grown. Really, it focused on buying more recycled goods in the beginning. That was the drive. But as it’s developed, the executive order has empowered it to do more. We really get to roll up our sleeves here at the Federal Environmental Executive and get into the nuts and bolts of operations, and I love that part of it.
Q: There’s been a lot of debate about telecommuting, because of Yahoo. How is that playing out in the federal government?
Powers: That’s sort of agency-by-agency. If you think about a place like Washington, where our commute tends to be pretty long, agencies have put in place programs where employees can telecommute. Or [the General Services Administration], for instance, is looking at ways to best manage their space, so that as employees come in and out of offices, they can sometimes “hotel” at desks, and move their IT system into the cloud.
Q: What are the biggest challenges? Are they financial, cultural or technological?
Powers: First, there’s amazing opportunity on the cultural change side. I think the culture change has been happening over the last three years, and what we’re seeing is innovation at the local level. Because of some bureaucratic challenges that can maybe stop some of that innovation, we’re finding ways to overcome the bureaucratic challenges. Instead of the VA hospital saying, “What are we doing in our building to get more renewable energy,” they’re talking to folks in the EPA office or the GSA office down the road. They’re saying, “Maybe we can do an aggregated purchase of renewables.”
Or maybe reduce the number of vehicles we have by having a car-sharing program so we can adjust our fleets. If folks at the IRS need their vehicle two out of the five days, there’s no reason for that vehicle to sit for three more days if somebody at the Peace Corps can use it for a recruiting trip, or someone from GSA can use it to audit a building.
Q: What’s an energy savings performance contract?
Powers: A tool that with little or no upfront cost to the taxpayer, we’re able to get the capital to do deeper retrofits to make buildings more efficient, and in the long term, save us money.
Q: You do that by sharing the cost of the project with a private company — then also sharing the savings. Why is this better than the government going alone?
Powers: The best way for us to do it is to invest ourselves in these energy-efficient technologies. The savings are not just in the capital to spend on the HVAC system, for instance. It’s in the operation and management of those systems over the course of a contract that we make tremendous savings. At the end of the contract, we own those technologies in the buildings. The risk lies in the private sector.
Q: How are those working?
Powers: Very well. The president and former president Bill Clinton launched the Better Buildings Challenge in December of 2011, and with that, called on 70 partners — CEOs, university presidents and others — to have a goal of being 20 percent more efficient by 2020. We’re in the midst of this $2 billion challenge, which is up in December. We’ve awarded over $550 million in contracts, and the pipeline to get us to that goal is full.
Q: What impact will the sequestration have on initiatives?
Powers: Senior leaders at agencies are making decisions on where they’re making investments. It’s hard to say with certainty. If you think of people who are doing the contracts, because of the furloughs (they) are missing an opportunity. That will slow them down ... but this may be seen as a stronger opportunity because of the fiscal constraint.
Q: Is there a technological advancement on the horizon that you think is going to make a huge difference?
Powers: Energy management systems in buildings (are) a great way to move forward. We’re getting smarter meters, and smart grids are beginning to gain traction in energy management, so you can think about supply and demand in what you’re doing — waste-to-energy types of programs, or look at different types of windows.
Q: Jimmy Carter had solar panels on top of the White House. They were taken down under Ronald Reagan. Where are they?
Powers: They’re in the procurement phase right now. It’s complex because of the historic nature of the house, the security needs of the house. It’s symbolically huge as far as leadership, but there are so many places where that leadership is really coming through.
Gregory Korte reports for USA Today.