Standing on the north roof of the James Forrestal building in Washington, D.C., Brian Costlow gestures to the black solar photovoltaic array lying flat against the cement tiles. The system generates 235 megawatt-hours of electricity annually in an effort to boost the energy efficiency of this office complex, the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Toward the south, the adjoining building takes a different tack. Framed by gray concrete, the west office's 66,000-square-foot roof is painted a stark white. The coating reflects sunlight and heat, reducing the need for air conditioning, and costs just as much as conventional roof resurfacing, said Costlow, who directs the agency's Office of Administration.

Inside, the offices are separated into color zones. Workers in different regions monitor their energy usage and compete head-to-head to improve their profiles, looking for energy losses and observing plug loads. Costlow describes their routine as "finding the alligators and draining the swamp."

The zone with the largest drop in energy consumption from the previous month gets a compact fluorescent bulb in its color in a trophy case in the building's lobby. "We had prominently displayed the daily energy consumption for each zone. We try to really kind of whoop it up a little bit," said Costlow. "We're trying to make certain that each and every employee understands that we can make a difference in the amount of energy that we consume."

These upgrades and tactics are part of the government's two-year-old push to lead the nation in achieving greater energy efficiency in its buildings and operations. President Obama gave the program an additional push earlier this month, announcing a plan to do roughly $2 billion in energy retrofits over the next two years, with the costs to be repaid, over time, through energy savings. He called for an additional $2 billion worth of efforts by the private sector.

Finding ways to cut energy use has become more critical now that many federal institutions are facing budget cuts in the wake of the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction's failure to reach a cost-cutting agreement.

Federal agencies offer a huge laboratory to try energy efficiency measures. The government spends $47 billion a year to operate and maintain its facilities, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The Federal Energy Management Program's data show that $6.7 billion of these expenses is devoted to energy.

The quirks and cultures of old buildings To help meet reduction targets, DOE offers prizes to agencies that make substantial efficiency improvements. Last month, DOE announced awards to 29 individuals, agencies and units within the government. The department said awardees helped save close to $160 billion and 770 trillion British thermal units of energy over the past 30 years.

The building that is the Dudley Do-Right of these efforts, however, is DOE's own white-roofed, partially sun-powered Washington headquarters. There, Costlow --who was one of the award winners -- wrestles with the quirks and the culture of a building that is 42 years old. "What we have been looking for are opportunities that are cost-effective and have short-term payback opportunities," he explained.

In addition to the cool roof and solar array, he implemented a $26.2 million energy-saving performance contract (ESPC), an agreement between an agency and a private energy company. Under its terms, the private company installs more efficient equipment -- like efficient air conditioners, LED lighting and automated energy control systems -- at its own expense. For DOE, the installer was NORESCO, a Westborough, Mass., company.

The agency pays NORESCO back over time using a portion of the energy savings that results. Costlow's ESPC for his office is expected to save $60 million in avoided costs. The department has also cut the size of its vehicle fleet by more than one-third and ensured that three-quarters of its vehicles are powered by alternative fuels, saving 5,000 gallons of gasoline in 2010.

"The biggest challenge has been being in an older building and looking at what technologies we can afford to put in," said Costlow. "We've really tried to make very pragmatic and disciplined decisions with the limited amount of money we have and spend it wisely."

Dudley Do-Right, the television cartoon version of the proverbially virtuous Canadian Mountie, always came up against Snidely Whiplash, a rascally wastrel who was very hard to subdue. When it comes to cutting the government's energy bills, the Whiplash figure may be the bureaucratic culture, which tends to resist change and always seems to snarl itself in red tape.

"Culture change sometimes comes hard," admits Costlow. Nonetheless, he's pushing it. He said DOE is helping employees telecommute and is investigating a "hoteling" approach to its office, in which employees wouldn't have a designated space and could be moved to different areas as necessary to reduce utility costs.

"Space is a very precious commodity," added Costlow. He noted that most workers responded favorably to the new arrangement in the pilot study, especially younger employees, who don't see the corner office as a status symbol.

Finding more gold in Fort Knox
Sections of the armed forces also received recognition for energy and cost-saving projects, some of which have been going on for decades. The U.S. military is a notoriously heavy energy user, with more than 500 bases encompassing almost 2 billion square feet and a $3 billion energy bill, according to DOE.

"A lot of the [military] installations are pretty progressive," said Beth Lachman, a senior operations research analyst at the RAND Corp. Lachman recently co-authored a report on how U.S. Army bases are working with utility companies to save money and reduce power use.

This is important to the Army because it has to deal with so much energy consumption: It controls the greatest number of buildings and the most enclosed space of any government division, with 251,676 buildings and 932,367,000 square feet of space, according to the General Services Administration.

The Army used a number of methods to curb energy use, but made a great deal of efficiency progress partnering with energy providers using ESPCs and utility energy service contracts (UESCs) to pay for renewable power generation as well as heat-, water- and electricity-saving upgrades. Using these programs, Fort Knox, an Army base, saw a 58 percent reduction in actual energy consumption between 1996 and 2006, said Lachman.

Red tape, though, makes it harder to bring private companies in to find energy savings. "As a general rule, the federal government cannot receive money to pay its bills from any source but Congress," explained Susan Lowe at the public affairs office for the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA)-Energy.

Because of this, a military base or unit can't accept a check from a utility for any rebates. The checks instead go to the government's general pool, making it difficult to reallocate the money to the base that generated the savings.

"For this reason, the demand response program allows installations to receive rebates to their utility bills instead of receiving checks," said Lowe. Demand response refers to how utility customers cut their power usage during peak times by using methods like on-site generation, minimizing heating and cooling in buildings, and adjusting work schedules. The utility then pays the customer for the curtailment measures.

The military insists its culture is not a problem. "Energy conservation and energy security are central to all airmen and the successful execution of their missions. Energy is a 'mission enabler,'" said Kelly Sanders at the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC) public affairs operations office in an email.

ACC, another energy award recipient, installed a 14.5-megawatt solar photovoltaic array at Davis Monthan Air Force Base using a power purchasing agreement, where a power company installed the array and the base agreed to purchase power from it at a similar or lower fixed price. In addition, ACC recycled excess solar equipment to build small arrays at 14 other bases. The unit's initiatives saved $4.4 million in energy costs along with 353,240 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

Should they tear down the Forrestal Building?
Still, efficiency upgrades can only get you so far. Many government facilities, like the Forrestal Building, were designed and built in an era when energy, land and resources were abundant and cheap. "[The Forrestal Building] didn't support the urban vitality that you look for today," said Bill Dowd, director of the physical planning division at the National Capital Planning Commission.

One energy-saving suggestion he has is to tear it down and start over. "It's not one of the top energy-efficient buildings in the city. The building inherently is not designed to high energy efficiency standards."

The DOE headquarters bridges L'Enfant Promenade, visually blocking the National Mall from the south and hampering development in the precinct. "This building occupies 20 acres, when it could probably occupy half of that," said Dowd.

"By redeveloping," he explained, "we can cultivate these other types of uses and improve the vitality of these precincts" by creating shopping, recreation and residential areas while opening the perceived space. In the process, the facility can drastically reduce its energy, water and land footprint.

In the current political environment, getting new money for a DOE headquarters (or almost anything else) is not in the cards. But fixing up energy-leaky old buildings is. As DOE's Costlow explained, the mission is to take charge in energy curtailment and serve as a guide to the private sector and the general public. "It's important to set the bar high in how to do the right things," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500