Obama sets ambitious renewable-power goals for agencies

Source: Emily Yehle, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, December 6, 2013

President Obama more than doubled the government’s renewable energy goal today, following through on a pledge he made five months ago to combat climate change through executive actions.

The presidential memo released today is no surprise; it was one of several goals laid out in his June speech on climate change (E&ENews PM, June 25).

But it makes the goal official to federal agencies that are already under pressure to deliver on a slew of sustainability goals, from energy efficiency to reduced petroleum use. In general, agencies have fared well in increasing their renewable energy usage, with some already exceeding the previous goal of 7.5 percent.

Obama’s memo raises that goal to 20 percent by 2020. That goal is for each agency, though the memo specifies that it is only “to the extent economically feasible and technically practicable.”

The idea is to leverage the government’s purchasing power to encourage the country to use more renewable energy. Agencies occupy 500,000 buildings throughout the country, spending $500 billion annually on goods and services.

In the memo, Obama wrote that agencies have already reduced their annual greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent, or 7.8 million metric tons, during his administration.

“In order to create a clean energy economy that will increase our Nation’s prosperity, promote energy security, combat climate change, protect the interests of taxpayers, and safeguard the health of our environment, the Federal Government must lead by example,” he wrote.

The main obstacle will be funding, as Congress continues to cut budgets and some agencies struggle to pay for basic program activities.

An administration official said agencies will have to find the money within their own budgets but will have the flexibility to use whatever is most cost-effective for them. Agencies have several ways to meet the mandate, including the installation of renewable energy on site and purchasing renewable energy certificates.

Mari Hernandez, an energy research associate at the liberal Center for American Progress, said agencies will be able to use power purchase agreements to meet the goal. Such agreements enable agencies to set the price of renewable energy power for a set period of time, spreading out the cost and often ensuring that agencies aren’t paying any more to switch.

Energy performance savings contracts can also be used. EPSCs allow a company to pay the upfront cost of equipment — say, for on-site renewable energy production — in return for a payment plan based on energy savings. Agencies currently use the contracts mostly for energy efficiency retrofits, but Hernandez said they could also be useful to meet the new renewable mandate.

“I think it’s doable. They’re already on track,” she said of Obama’s goal, adding that the Defense Department’s success will be key as the government’s largest energy consumer.

Obama’s memo also sets out requirements for federal buildings to install energy and water meters, as well as keep track of performance data. Within 120 days of the memo, the General Services Administration will work with the Energy Department and U.S. EPA to create a plan to pilot Green Button, a new data format that helps track energy use.

In a statement, the U.S. Green Building Council applauded Obama for taking “bold action” on advancing renewables and energy efficiency through such disclosures.

“No one wants to see our taxpayer dollars used on wasted energy. Managing the energy use in our buildings is how energy efficiency potential is turned into real dollar and energy savings,” said CEO Rick Fedrizzi. “Better management of our public buildings means better buildings and not to mention savings of millions of dollars for the American public.”

Agencies are already planning how to meet the new renewable energy goals, according to updated sustainability plans released in conjunction with Obama’s memo.

The Department of the Interior, for example, has combined several methods. More than 4 percent of its renewable energy is generated on site, while 1.5 percent is purchased through a utility company and 2.4 percent comes through renewable energy credits.