U.S. Government Seeks to Limit Federal Energy Use

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The U.S. federal government is the single largest energy consumer in a nation that consumes more energy than any other in the world.

Overall, federal primary energy use has decreased by 25 percent from 1985 to 2008, due largely to building retrofits throughout some of the 3 billion-square feet of offices, research centers, and military bases managed by the U.S. government.

But White House officials, as part of their efforts to improve energy security, address rising energy prices, and mitigate climate change, are suggesting that these efficiency gains are too modest.

White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ)
Chair Nancy Sutley said at a conference last week that she hopes to find ways for the federal government to comply with more ambitious efficiency targets.

"We have to deal with greenhouse gases from the federal government," Sutley said at a U.S. Marine Corps-hosted energy summit in Washington, D.C. "It's important to take a look to see if we can update [efficiency standards]."

Congressional action may not be necessary to impose more stringent federal energy efficiency standards and monitoring programs, Sutley said.

"We hope to have an announcement shortly," she said.

Various U.S. energy bills have set efficiency standards for the federal government. Most recently, the U.S. Congress passed legislation in 2007 that directed the federal government to lead by example and reduce its energy intensity 30 percent from 2003 levels by 2015.
Annual Report to Congress on Federal Government Energy Management and Conservation Programs Fiscal Year 2006

The U.S. Department of Defense uses the most energy in the federal government. Vehicles and equipment consume two-thirds of federal energy supplies; across the military, aviation demand requires the most fuel, according to Richard Kidd, a manager of the U.S. Department of Energy's Federal Energy Management Program, who also spoke at the conference.

Although the department is reducing its overall energy use, soldiers' electrical devices and greater use of more heavy vehicles has required more energy resources. American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan use more fuel each day than during any previous war in U.S. history.

"Everything we're building right now is bigger than what it is replacing," said Lt. Gen. George Flynn, a Marine Corps deputy commandant, to military leaders at last week's conference. "If you help me to make things lighter, I will help you to use less energy."

Energy inefficiency is a security threat and economic strain for the United States. The rise in energy prices last year cost the Department of Defense an additional $7 billion, and half of military casualties are estimated to be associated with convoys such as fuel transportation.  

In response, several bases have incorporated more solar and wind power installations. The military also wants to find affordable renewable energy options that can power the 9 pounds (4 kilograms) of batteries that, on average, each soldier carries.

Another cause of increased energy use throughout the U.S. government is the growing reliance on computers. Government data centers alone may undermine energy efficiency targets, Kidd said.

"If we keep using the energy required in our data centers, it will cancel out all other energy efficiency progress," Kidd said. "If we don't get in front of the problem of energy use in data centers, nothing else will matter."

Increased Internet use is draining energy supplies throughout the United States and the world. The total electricity required for data centers doubled worldwide between 2000 and 2005, a Stanford University study found. Energy demand is expected to double yet again by 2020 to power the world's computers, data storage, and communications networks, a McKinsey & Company analysis said last year.

As part of the energy efficiency legislation that the U.S. Congress passed in 2007, the federal government is directed to buy products that consume only 1 watt of electricity when the device is turned off, known as standby power.

The U.S. economic stimulus package
, enacted in February, provides $4.5 billion for state and local governments to increase energy efficiency in federal buildings. The funds were provided to assist several agencies in accelerating projects such as green roofs, renewable energy, and more efficient electricity grids. Annual Report to Congress on Federal Government Energy Management and Conservation Programs Fiscal Year 2006

Correction: The story originally stated that the U.S. government's leading use of energy is jet fuel. In fact, jet fuel is the leading use of energy for the Department of Defense.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

This article is a product of Eye on Earth, Worldwatch Institute's online news service. For permission to reprint Eye on Earth content, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.