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Leeds Says GSA Poised to Address Key National Imperatives


As prepared for delivery.

Remarks by
Stephen R. Leeds
Senior Counselor to the Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
Green Building Focus 2011 Conference
April 20, 2011
Charlotte, NC

Thank you, Scott [Tew, Ingersoll Rand], for that kind introduction.  I assure you I’m not speaking today just because my last name is Leeds.  I’m delighted to join you today, two days before Earth Day, and open the Green Building Focus 2011 Conference.   

These conferences are important events, and are critical to building the professional communities that will secure our future.  But more on that in a moment.

GSA’s mission is to use expertise to provide innovative solutions for our customers in support of their missions and by so doing foster an effective, sustainable, and transparent government for the American people.

We do everything from streamline the downtown Washington, DC federal shuttles to dispose of NASA’s space shuttles.  And, when disaster strikes, GSA mobilizes the federal buying power to support FEMA’s emergency operations.  

Our client base is broad. Our biggest acquisitions client is the Department of Defense and our largest real estate client is the federal judiciary. In some respects, we do everything for everyone. Everywhere.  

We’re also big.  On the acquisition side of things, we touch roughly $95 billion worth of transactions each year -- $65 billion in purchasing and $30 billion in government charge card goods and services.   

In terms of our building portfolio, we own and lease over 360 million square feet of space across the country – over 2 percent of U.S. commercial office space – and we traditionally have a construction budget exceeding $1.3 billion.  

Our strategic positioning within the government is unique. I like to think that there are three levers of policy change: the government can legislate, it can regulate, or it can incentivize. GSA doesn’t do the first two, but we are the key mover on the third one: because of our purchasing power we can make, move, influence, and guide markets.  

Because of this strategic positioning, the president sees GSA as a strategic asset to his administration, and he has directed us to take a leadership role in forwarding his sustainability agenda.  And it’s an agenda that he takes seriously.  

Our country faces new and serious challenges. We’re pulling ourselves back from the brink of the worst recession since the Great Depression; We’re working hard to reinvigorate our economy and get our unemployed back to work; And we’re wrestling with our dependence on fossil fuels to power our cars, our homes, and our workplaces.

To tackle these challenges and to continue our country’s economic and global leadership into the next century, the President has outlined a bold plan to win the future by out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building our global competition.  

By partnering with the private sector and investing in what America does best he has set us on a course for environmental responsibility, national security, and economic growth.

To support this mission, I’d like to highlight three specific initiatives that the President has launched and then describe GSA’s role in moving the government in a more sustainable direction.  

First, the President pushed for and signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  This landmark legislation was an unprecedented investment in American innovation and job creation.  It provided resources for agencies to support fledgling green tech industries, and it put people to work on 21st Century clean tech infrastructure.  Here in North Carolina, the state has been awarded over $7 billion dollars in Recovery Act money, and it is putting that money – and local businesses – to work as we speak.    

The notable oncologist Dr Raber is fond of telling young doctors entering the field of cancer research that the “big limitation in the fight for the cure is imagination.”  He continues, “If you are good at what you do and you have great ideas, we will help you find the resources you need to make them happen.”  The same can be said about the Recovery Act.  It gave us resources to unlock the potential of our imagination and put thousands of Americans to work again.

Second, the president built on the momentum of the Recovery Act by issuing Executive Order 13514, Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.  The name says it all: the federal government is going to lead in moving our nation towards a low-carbon, reduced footprint, sustainable future.

The Executive Order has a number of important pieces to it, including agency targets of 26 percent improvement in water efficiency by 2020 and the requirement that federal buildings must be net-zero energy by 2030. It also directs every agency to incorporate a commitment to sustainability into its core mission.

Across the government, in other words, agencies need to take this seriously.  And they are.  Last year, agencies submitted strategic sustainability performance plans to the White House detailing their sustainability efforts and laying out a roadmap for their future progress.  These plans are aggressive and publicly available; agencies know the country is watching and expecting results.

Third, the president launched the Better Buildings Initiative, a breakthrough effort aiming to achieve a 20 percent improvement in the energy efficiency of commercial buildings by 2020, reduce the energy bills of companies by $40 billion per year, and save energy by reforming outdated incentives and challenging the private sector to act.  

This is enormously important.  Buildings use 72 percent of U.S. Electricity, 40 percent of all domestic energy use, and are responsible for 38 percent of carbon emissions.  Given those statistics, it’s clear that improving energy efficiency in our buildings will create jobs, save money, and unleash our talent.  

The Better Buildings Initiative supports each of these goals. I think of our progress on this initiative as being in two categories: what’s already in the system, and what we’re going to start rolling out soon.  

The administration is building on established investments such as the $20 billion in Recovery Act funding for energy efficiency programs and the $5.5 billion that GSA received to update and modernize federal buildings.  

Using existing loan programs, the Small Business Administration is working with select lenders to encourage the engine of our economy – small businesses – to take advantage of recently increased loan limits for energy efficiency retrofits.  

And the President is implementing a number of important reforms including improving the transparency of energy efficiency performance and launching a Building Construction Technology Extension Partnership that provides workforce training in building operations, thereby setting the benchmark for these hi-tech, green-collar jobs.  

In the coming year, the Better Buildings Initiative will use a series of tax incentives and expanded financing to catalyze private sector investment in energy efficient retrofits.

And we’re looking forward to the rollout of the Race to Green grant program that will award funds to state and local governments that initiate efforts to streamline building codes and adopt policies that attract private-sector investment in building retrofits.  

Individually, these programs represent serious commitments to encouraging pragmatic energy use.  Collectively, they form an unprecedented suite of public-private partnerships, government investments, tax incentives, and grants.  It will set the foundation for America to improve its built environment, upskill its workforce, and excite our national creativity.  

In short, The Better Buildings Initiative is an important step in out-innovating, out-educating, and out-building our competition.  

So what is GSA’s role in supporting this agenda? Our mission, remember, is to conduct and support the business of government.  The business of government.

And, as the private sector has shown, few strategies have proven themselves to be as strategically successful as embracing sustainability.  Why? Because sustainability is about eliminating waste.  It’s wrings inefficiencies out of the system.  It minimizes redundancies and amplifies innovation. The private sector gets this.

To many private firms, sustainability is about more than blue skies and clear water – it’s about productivity, efficiency, and the bottom line.  That’s why companies ranging from UPS to Amazon.com to Starbucks have embraced sustainability. It’s why major corporations are tracking, measuring, and reducing their GHG emissions.  It’s why more than 65 small companies have already signed up to GSA’s small business GHG accounting pilot program.  And it’s why private developers are embracing sustainable buildings at ever-greater levels.  

Nationally there are more than 7,500 LEED certified projects, 174 in North Carolina alone including 83 gold and 11 platinum buildings. CEOs understand that this is more than just a marketing gimmick; it’s an efficiency measure and a profit booster.  

The principle is the same at GSA, but our bottom line isn’t profits; it’s performance.  We may not be responsible to shareholders, but we are responsible to the American people and the agencies that we serve.  

So how do we bring value to the American people and provide a government that works ever better to serve them?  By being better stewards of our resources.

At GSA, sustainability is an environmental philosophy, a management philosophy, tax payer dollar stewardship, and a budget imperative.  We have adopted a goal at GSA of Zero Environmental Footprint, ZEF.  

The federal government is the nation’s largest consumer of energy, using 1.62 quadrillion BTUs annually – enough to power nearly 41 million homes for a year.  Our utility and fuel bill last year alone was $24 billion dollars.  We can do better, we must do better, and GSA is leading the way.  

In our strategic sustainability performance plan, GSA raised the bar.  As of last summer, every new construction and major renovation project will be built to a minimum of LEED Gold.  We also committed to reducing the energy consumption in federal buildings by one-third by 2020, increasing renewable energy generation, and diverting at least half of GSA’s nonhazardous waste from landfills, among other targets.  

While these may seem overly ambitious, I’m pleased to announce that we are well on our way. Yesterday, the Office of Management and Budget released the scorecards for agency performance toward their sustainability goals.  

In an illustration of GSA’s leadership on this front, the agency was one of only three in the federal government to receive the highest marks in every category.  And we’re not done.  Not nearly.

With the help of terrific partners we are developing new and fantastically creative ways to make our building portfolio a world-class collection of low-footprint, high-efficiency monuments to sustainability.

A quick review of just a few of GSA’s hundreds of projects shows where we’ve come so far, and gives an indication of where we’re going.  

You may know the Terry Sanford Federal Building and Courthouse in Raleigh.  Using Recovery Act funds, GSA has installed more the 2,300 photovoltaic panels that are projected to offset the building’s annual energy usage by nearly 20 percent.

At a historic courthouse in Grand Junction, Colorado, we’re tapping into the geothermal opportunities of the Western Rockies to heat and cool this national landmark and achieve the first net-zero energy building on the historic register.

And we’re trying other strategies at sites too numerous to mention. We’re looking hard at new ways of using wind, sun, earth, and materials to create highly efficient spaces for a highly modern, highly productive workforce.  

Further, we’re creating a built environment that works hard for its occupants, and for the environment, on its last day as well as its first – and every day in between.  That’s why we’re building resilient and adaptive structures that can easily improve as new technologies enter the field. But our work doesn’t end with the last PV panel attached to the roof.  

Since high performance buildings require high-performance management, we’re also giving special attention to partnering with the building operations workforce.  We are working with them to learn how to best operate hi-tech, 21st century buildings.  And we’re engaged in activities that I think of as being “beyond the shell.”  

This includes exploring the possibilities of telework, getting serious about data center consolidations, redefining the “workplace” as the broader “workspace,” and encouraging sustainability awareness and behavior shifts in building occupants.

Sustainability is as much about human behavior as it is about new technologies; green branding can help move the needle, but to become transformational, we must embrace widespread behavioral shifts.

To conclude, I’d like to share a story that highlights why we have to move on this agenda.

A couple months ago I read a press account that quoted Princeton philosopher Kwame Appiah and examined the evolution of social moral moments.  A question he raised is how future generations will judge us.  What will our children and grandchildren look back and think about us?

I hope that they look back at us with pride, and say that at this time, in this moment, we encouraged new veins of discovery and tapped new wells of imagination that laid the foundation for a new era of American prosperity.  

As I mentioned, we’ve done a lot.  But we aren’t done yet. Not nearly.  

This is a national moment and we stand poised to rise to the occasion. This is the time when our creativity can realize its potential.  This is the time when our imagination can be opened. This is the time to embrace discovery, to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build our competition and to win the future by building the pillars of a sustainable tomorrow.