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Johnson Points the Way Forward for Sustainability

Condensed Remarks

Remarks by
Martha N. Johnson
U.S. General Services Administration
GovEnergy Conference
Dallas, TX
August 18, 2010

I want to say thank you to the high school dancers this morning. If we could bottle their energy we could probably power Texas for at least a week. They were terrific, and it’s always good to have that kind of community involvement when the federal government shows up, so I am delighted that they were here. Thank you.

I am delighted to be here today. This is a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and is important to GSA. The feds are, as we know, big. They are big in the market, and the federal government consumes more energy than any other single entity across the nation; every year we consume 1.6 quadrillion BTUs, and by 2030, it looks as if we will be spending half a trillion dollars just to power our buildings.

However the trajectory is moving in the right direction; we are becoming more efficient. Our total primary energy consumption in 2007 was 16 percent less than about 20 years before in the middle of the 1980s. It was 3.7 percent less than in 2003. The numbers show that we’re marching in the right direction.

Additionally, agencies have reduced petroleum-based fuels by a whopping 75 percent since the mid-80s, and the actual numbers are 118 trillion BTUs down to 30 trillion BTUs. Importantly, 30 percent of that occurred since fiscal year 2003, so there is an acceleration there in terms of our efficiency.

I want to acknowledge that GSA plays an important role across the government, and it is important to remember the scale of what we’re talking about. President [Barack] Obama sees sustainability as essential to the 21st century economy, and I am going to quote him: "Countries on every corner of this Earth now recognize that energy supplies are growing scarcer, energy demands are growing larger, and rising energy use imperils the planet we will leave to future generations. And that's why the world is now engaged in a peaceful competition to determine the technologies that will power the 21st century… The nation that wins this competition will be the nation that leads the global economy. I am convinced of that. And I want America to be that nation."
The president is committed to sustainability because of environmental reasons and also because of economic reasons, and that is why GSA plays an important role in this issue. We are at that crosshairs of how we spend our money and how we take care of our environment. The president understands that GSA is an asset to his government. I am not sure GSA has always played that role, but now we are highly engaged in the president’s agenda, and it is thrilling to be in the front seat of the car.

There are couple of ways that we know that the spotlight is on us to perform around sustainability. Of course the president has named us to his green team, but importantly, he saw to it we received over 5 billion in Recovery Act dollars, and that money was primarily directed at improving the energy performance of our federal inventory.

The inventory that we are responsible for includes over 350,000,000 square feet of space and a third of the federal fleet – about 200,000 vehicles – so we are a very crucial leverage point in the river of consumption that the federal government engages in annually. GSA has a number of levers to pull that can influence that consumption, and that’s what makes it so important for our strategic positioning to be right; we need to be doing this correctly.

GSA is big enough that it can make and move markets. In the past, we have been considered the organization that finds the lowest price, but we are now in a very different role. We are about discovering value for the federal government. The Clinger-Cohen Act in the mid-1990 changed our direction from being just a low- price, high-quantity buyer to being a value-add assessor, and we, therefore, are making decisions that will move and make markets. This is important, both in terms of the economy that we are trying to help stimulate and in terms of the innovation and the new directions that the government needs to take in terms of spending its dollar. So, we are right in the middle of that. We take it very seriously, and it is challenging us in every part of our management and our energies.

The Public Buildings Service that is responsible for the 350 million square feet of portfolio I mentioned earlier is positioning itself as a proving ground for energy-efficient technologies. This is important because who else has inventory in every congressional district across the United States, in every climate zone in the United States, at every altitude level? Nobody. So we have a portfolio that lends itself to practicing and using new technologies and seeing if they work.

We also have broad shoulders. We are big, and that means that we can assume risk in a way that an individual agency or department can’t, with respect to this kind of innovative trial-and-error experiment.

We also have a tradition of innovation that began with the oil crisis of the 1970s, during which time we began to engage in energy-efficient activity. That is one of the reasons that our numbers on federal building energy consumption have moved in the direction that they have: down. In 1974, we were responsible for opening the Edith Green - Wendell Wyatt Federal Building parking lot in Portland, Ore. This structure has a green roof that, impressively, has never yet leaked. It is a public park, and it is a demonstration of the kind of innovation we enjoyed and practiced in the 1970s. So we have a tradition of innovation, we have the remit from the president, and we have the market positioning.

When I rejoined GSA, it was apparent that we were at a moment when a lot of things were coming together. As I said, our mandate, our tradition, and the demands by the president were upon us. We took the executive team of GSA – about 200 people – and we went on a field trip, and we visited a company that declared in the mid-1990s it was aiming for zero footprint by 2020. We toured the factories and the recycling center and their design center, and it was apparent that they had to adjust on a number of levels, not just commitment of leadership to change their marketing strategies. They had to change their product strategies, and they had to change their financing strategies. We learned a lot on that field trip. Field trips are an amazing thing, and in those three days, our leadership team basically sat down, looked at each other and said, “Can we do it?” And we said, “Yes, we can.” So we have declared that our intention at GSA is to become a zero environmental footprint organization, and by that, we will be influencing the government in that direction. It’s important not to declare goals that you know, but rather to declare goals that challenge, that vitalize, that invigorate, and that will lead you forward.

The reason that this was within our reach is, in the short term, because of the Recovery Act funding. The Recovery Act funding that came our way was more than $5 billion, and it allowed us to do some substantial work, including greening our fleet and bringing 17,000 fuel-efficient vehicles into the fleet that will save 334 million pounds of CO2 [carbon dioxide] emissions over seven years. With Recovery Act money, we also have launched some 31 solar power projects, and we expect they will generate over 12 megawatts of renewable solar power capacity, which is enough to power 1,600 homes or equivalent to removing 2,500 cars from the road. These are starting points, and we are eager to take this initial spark and push it harder. We need to do much more, but this is a good kickoff.

In the Recovery Act, we received some money to renovate our own building. The GSA headquarters was completed in 1917 and hasn’t really been touched since then, and it’s in need of not just a facelift but an entire rebuild. So we are moving most of our people from the headquarters building into a swing space, which will teach us a lot about how to encourage and support our customers in just such a move. We need to encourage the government to not just declare zero environmental footprint, but actually reduce its geographic footprint, too, and we are going to lead the way ourselves with that effort. In the next couple of years, we are doing it ourselves, and we believe that our practices and lessons from that will be helpful to everyone.

We are also using our buying power to green the supply chain. This is a huge undertaking for us, and it is important to declare it and to keep adding to it. As you know, our schedules process was quite an innovation for us in the early 1990s, and we now want to work very hard so that you have green aisles, and you have real options in terms of green products and services to choose from.

We have a sustainability plan at the White House — as does every other major department — and we are quite excited about it. We are waiting for it to be returned so we can share it with you. It is aggressive, and it’s going to show that we are going to put our money where our mouth is. We have high-priority performance goals, and our sustainability goals there are, I think, worth pointing out.

• We have committed in the next 13 months to identifying at least 12 major policies that are governmentwide, that we will adjust and shape with the input from all the stakeholders so that they are encouraging more sustainable behavior.
• We are partnering with the Environmental Protection Agency to obtain greenhouse gas emissions disclosures from small business, noticing that many large corporations are already doing this because they deal with Australia and Germany and the international and global demands around energy performance. We need to move that kind of behavior into the small-business arena.
• We are also committed to increasing our solid waste recycling across our building portfolio by 10 percent.

These are our next 13-month goals. We also have a greenhouse gas tracking software, which is available, and will be helping other departments figure out what their performance is in terms of calculating their energy usage.

We are off and running on important work. This is a very interesting time to be involved in this issue and to be in the government and in a position to make a difference. Over the last 25 years, we have realized or picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit in terms of the green innovation available. We have increased the energy-efficiency in our buildings by over 20 percent compared to comparable types of buildings in the private sector, and we have realized some significant improvement. This means that the next round of work we have to do is, perhaps, digging a little deeper.

I come from the automotive industry, so I love the analogy of this time as Detroit in 1900. In Detroit at that time, there was a mad, chaotic scramble going on. Everyone was trying to predict what the next thing was. There were carburetor companies, there were windshield companies, there were crankshaft companies, and there were car companies. There were many of them, and they proliferated, and it was a generative and a creative time, and as I just said, it was chaotic, and there were winners, and there were losers. I think we are in exactly that kind of world now, and we need to enjoy and mine the generative spirit that we have developed.

We need to innovate and make that creativity a reality, and we need to do that together and understand that we are on the edge of making a huge difference for our environment, as well as for the American economy. It is time to try, to test, to share, to collaborate, to partner, to use all of those community skills that we have so that we can learn the best from each other and make the wisest decisions.

We are an open government. We are ready to share, and we can do even better by sharing even more. Therefore, we invite you to share, invite you to bring your best practices to the table, invite collaboration and serious discussion about our options, and we, in return, pledge to do the same and to enter into this great journey quickly and with a great deal of hope and optimism that we are going to be extremely effective and we are going to hand a country and environment to our children that allows them to thrive.

Thank you very much, I am delighted to be here, and I look forward to your enjoying the rest of this conference and learning a lot. Take care.

Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13