The Biden administration’s long-term vision to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions across the federal government’s operations is coming into focus, with the General Services Administration leading several major efforts.
GSA plays a critical role in reaching the goals of President Joe Biden’s executive order directing agencies to become carbon neutral by 2050 and to reduce federal greenhouse gas emissions by 65% by 2030.
The agency also plays a leading role in electrifying the federal vehicle fleet, promoting green contracting practices and shifting agencies to sustainable sources of electricity in federal properties.
Nina Albert, commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service, said that as both the largest landlord and the largest building tenant in the country, GSA can influence sustainable energy policy through its procurement and design standards.
“We can work very closely with clean energy utilities, lock in advantageous pricing, for example, which reduces volatility for ourselves, and then also work directly with those energy utilities to push toward our 100% carbon-pollution-free energy goal as soon as possible,” Albert said in an interview.
The greening of government buildings
The executive order directs GSA to achieve a net-zero emissions building portfolio by 2045, as well as a 50% emissions reduction by 2032.
With more than 480 historic buildings in its portfolio, Albert said there are several ways to retrofit these properties to be more sustainable.
A key principle of energy efficiency is first to take care of the “envelope” — the roofs, windows, walls and insulation, she said. “Even though we have historic buildings, clearly you can replace roofs in a way that respects the historic nature of the building but also achieves energy efficiency.”
The more complicated part of retrofitting historic buildings is installing new heating, ventilation, air conditioning and other kinds of systems that draw power.
“The biggest challenge to it is really trying to figure out how to replace them without interrupting any of the building operations inside. So it’s usually a bit of a timing issue, and then, of course, it’s a budget issue,” Albert said.
Deciding whether to retrofit or opt for new construction
Retrofitting federal buildings is often more a sustainable option than new construction, considering the funding and material already put into a site.
But for new construction and major renovations, GSA has a “net-zero ready” standard, Albert said. The standard means that when renewable, carbon-pollution-free energy sources or renewable energy sources are available, and can be fully integrated into a building, the building will be prepared to run on that renewable energy source.
“We believe that setting a high bar at this time indicates to the marketplace that this is where we want to see new technologies offered, new processes thought through. I think it’s an exciting time for the industry,” she said.
GSA uses a combination of appropriated funds, utility energy rebates and performance contracting to help support energy-efficient investments.
It is a leader among civilian federal agencies using performance contracts, a budget-neutral approach to make building improvements that reduce energy and water use and increase operational efficiency.
GSA has invested more than $755 million in performance contracts since 2013. “It’s not just that upfront capital piece, but it’s also access to dedicated funding that allows us to maintain these buildings properly,” Albert said.
GSA efforts focus on lessening the effects of climate change
Aside from saving money and energy, GSA’s sustainability goals also seek to minimize the impact of climate change. “Understanding how to protect and plan against climate events is incredibly important to the federal government’s ability to continue to serve the American public,” Albert said.
GSA uses national climate assessment data and other sources to determine locations in which buildings are sensitive to flooding or wildfires, for example, and then uses those determinations as part of planning its annual budget request, she explained.
The Biden administration expects climate change’s toll on the federal government will become more expensive over time. New assessments that are part of the administration’s fiscal 2023 budget request show the federal government could spend up to $128 billion a year by the end of the century to mitigate some of the effects of climate change.
This spending includes flood insurance, crop insurance, wildfire suppression and mitigating flooding at federal facilities. The administration projects as many as 12,000 federal buildings could be flooded by the end of century, at a total replacement cost of more than $43 billion.
Supporting sustainable building best practices
GSA is also an active participant in several communities promoting sustainable building practices. The agency serves as a member of the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Buy Clean Task Force.
It also hosts a Green Building Advisory Committee — made up of trade groups, nonprofits, academia, other agencies and industry partners — to study sustainable building innovations.
The committee is currently working with GSA on low-embodied carbon materials, including concrete and asphalt, Albert said. Low-embodied carbon materials reduce climate impact, in terms of mining, manufacturing and transportation of component materials.
Lowering the emission of concrete will prove useful as the agency plans to spend $3.4 billion to modernize 26 land ports of entry along U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico, she said. “As we proceed with those building projects, we will start to be able to reduce emissions building materials in the very immediate future.”
GSA fosters federal building sustainability innovations and pilots
The General Services Administration has been focused on improving building sustainability for more than a decade.
Through its Green Proving Ground program, which began in 2011, GSA tests new and emerging sustainable building technologies. “We select technologies on their potential to deliver not only on our sustainability goals but also on the cost-effectiveness of those technologies,” said Nina Albert, commissioner of GSA’s Public Buildings Service.
Since it began, the Green Proving Ground program has tested more than 80 next-generation building technologies. In all, GSA has deployed 23 technologies in federal buildings from the program, saving $16 million annually.
And through its Green Building Advisory Committee, GSA has also helped develop innovations like grid-interactive efficient buildings. The development of the grid approach spawned multiple pilot projects, as well as guidance about how to leverage performance contracts to develop grid-interactive efficient buildings. The Energy Department also launched a pilot to help other agencies pilot and implement these practices.