Yesterday President Obama signed a sweeping Executive Order that instructs all agencies to step up efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and save energy and water. This isn’t the first time that the inefficiency of federal facilities has received attention, but it certainly represents the strongest and broadest push towards overall sustainability given to the agencies. After all, it’s tax money that pays the bill so there is no excuse for waste. The EO not only covers energy, but also water, transportation, construction waste, and procurement, all while requiring each agency to set greenhouse gas emission reductions targets within 90 days.

The EO should have an effect immediately. The federal government is the largest consumer of energy in this country and does not exactly set a good example for private industry. A consistent lack of attention to building management led to Executive Order 13423 (issued by the previous administration) that requires an annual 3 percent reduction and a 30 percent reduction by 2015 of energy use per square foot in federal facilities compared to a 2003 baseline. Water consumption must drop 2 percent annually. These targets were expanded by Congress in the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. EISA added a requirement for all new and renovated federal facilities to reduce energy consumption from fossil fuel sources 55 percent by 2010 and 100 percent by 2030.

Progress in meeting the existing requirements is mixed. One success story is the General Services Administration (GSA, basically the federal government’s landlord), which beat the goal of reducing energy consumption 9% in 2008 with a reduction of 10.3%. GSA also got $4.5 billion in the Recovery Act to further the success.

Now the Obama administration has stepped in and built on these requirements by directing every agency to set GHG reduction targets (this was left out of the previous EO). Clearly, these targets are going to be related to the energy reduction targets the agencies are already required to meet.

One other important addition for buildings is a timeline for achieving zero net energy designs (meaning they produce as much energy as they use).

“beginning in 2020 and thereafter, ensuring that all new Federal buildings that enter the planning process are designed to achieve zero-net-energy by 2030;”

This is a very aggressive goal, but consistent with what California and the organizations that signed on to the 2030 Challenge are working to do. We’ll need to see much more innovative and creative federal building designs in the future to get there.

So what does it all mean? A quick look at commercial building data from the Energy Information Agency indicates that with just a 30 percent reduction in the energy consumption of federal facilities, annual savings of at least $1.3 billion dollars are possible at today’s energy prices. Global warming pollution could be reduced by over 7 million metric tons per year, equivalent to removing almost one and a half million cars from the road. This estimate only accounts for certain building types and no vehicle reductions, meaning the savings would be much larger if all the agencies met the goals across their portfolios. Nothing to sneeze at.