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The U.S. Post Office Loop Station, part of the Chicago Federal Center, is an example of a modernized building completed in 1973.

Earth Day: Cleaner materials, greener technologies, lower emissions

| GSA Blog Team
Post filed in: Climate  |  Earth Day  |  Energy  |  Federal Buildings  |  Fleet  |  Green Buildings  |  Green Proving Ground  |  Sustainability

Much of GSA’s vast real estate portfolio – the equivalent square footage of 137 Empire State Buildings – was built before reports on climate change made us take a closer look at building management and construction practices. 

What we know now is that we can reduce emissions that worsen climate change and pollute the air, even before a building is even under construction. At every step of building projects and modernizations, we are fostering homegrown markets for cleaner materials and greener technologies that lower emissions, save taxpayer dollars and create good jobs across the country.

Since Earth Day in 2023, we’ve made great progress. 

Less harmful pollution, stronger communities

GSA facilities are located in more than 2,200 communities nationwide, from the smallest rural towns to the largest metropolitan areas, and its portfolio contains more than 371 million square feet of owned, leased or managed space.  

These buildings do more than provide office space: They bring people together and strengthen local economies. At the same time, though, building construction and operations account for a significant percentage of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, and impact local air quality. 

The most recent investment GSA made in local communities was driven by the agency’s commitment to advancing sustainability and environmental justice at the local level. Through the Good Neighbor Program, GSA just announced an investment of $23 million through the Inflation Reduction Act to improve the space surrounding federal facilities to help benefit local communities. Thirteen projects across 10 states include repairs and enhancements that will improve stormwater management, mitigate heat island effects with tree plantings, improve local habitats with increased greenspace, and more. 

But that investment just scratches the surface of GSA’s recent sustainability efforts.

Boosting clean, domestic manufacturing industries and jobs

The fact is, GSA has been working to lighten the environmental footprint of its facilities for years. For example, since 2008, GSA has reduced its portfolio’s annual operational greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by more than 60%.

Today GSA is working to build on this progress, leveraging the fact that the agency buys a lot of construction materials.  Most notably, the agency is using its $3.4 billion of the Inflation Reduction Act funding to build, modernize, and maintain more sustainable and cost-efficient high-performance facilities. 

This funding includes $2 billion for about 150 projects that will use low-embodied carbon construction materials. This will help GSA address the sustainability factor of how these building materials were manufactured, and along the supply chain.

“There are four things we buy the most of, and that is concrete, asphalt, glass and steel,” GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan said during a recent GSA Does That!? podcast. By increasing demand for lower-carbon types of these materials, these investments have the potential to strengthen America’s domestic industrial base and spur innovation and job growth in homegrown industries that produce next-generation products, she says.

“What we’re learning is that when you signal to the market that this is what we’re interested in buying, the market figures out how to provide it,” Carnahan said. “It turns out that in many cases the cost is not much different.” Referring to buying low-carbon materials while also providing value for taxpayers, she added, “the big takeaway here is that you can do both of these things, and that’s different than it was, you know, 10, 20, 30 years ago.”

Inflation Reduction Act investments like this will contribute to overall impacts of GSA’s IRA funding, which is estimated to avoid about 2.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the same amount produced by 500,000 gasoline-powered passenger vehicles each year. 

Spurring clean tech for next generation buildings and saving taxpayer dollars

Most of GSA’s other Inflation Reduction Act funds (about $975 million) will go toward supporting sustainable and emerging technologies, crucial to electrifying more buildings and accelerating GSA’s efforts toward achieving a net-zero emissions portfolio by 2045. 

The good news here is that GSA expects to double that investment, deploying a total of $1.9 billion in private and public funding. And, on top of that, this investment could help avoid about $467 million in energy costs for American taxpayers over the next two decades.

A great example of this: GSA’s project to upgrade and electrify the  Ronald Reagan and International Trade Center in Washington – the headquarters for the U.S. Agency for International Development – has the potential to save over $6.3 million in energy costs annually.

As GSA moves forward with private-sector partners to implement technologies in our buildings, the agency’s vast real estate portfolio simultaneously provides it with plenty of room to also test emerging technologies via GSA’s Green Proving Ground program.

“The scale means two things,” Kevin Powell, the director of the GPG, said during a GSA Does That!? podcast. “We have the ability to research next generation building technologies and we have the market clout to really drive transformation and deliver those technologies.”

The GPG has been helping to bridge clean technology’s “valley of death” – the time between research and development and commercial maturity – since 2012. With the agency’s partnership with the Department of Energy and $30 million of GSA’s Inflation Reduction Act funding towards clean energy solutions, the GPG can take on more projects.

Today, the GPG has 34 ongoing technology evaluations in buildings across the country.  

One of the most impactful technologies the GPG has evaluated are magnetic levitation chillers, Powell said. Yes, maglev – the same technology that allows bullet trains to float swiftly above their tracks. There are about 400 of these chillers deployed in GSA’s portfolio.

Other projects include testing glass insulation techniques that aim for windows to insulate buildings almost as efficiently as walls, and using data and artificial intelligence to manage buildings in real time. 

Fueling the clean transportation future

Greening GSA’s portfolio doesn’t end there. GSA provides more than 230,000 vehicles to agencies across the federal government, one of the largest in the world, and aims to ensure all new fleet vehicle purchases are zero-emissions by 2035. 

In the first quarter of this fiscal year, GSA ordered 4,000 more ZEVs – accounting for 20% of all orders and almost 30% of all light-duty vehicle orders. In fiscal 2023, GSA ordered over 5,800 zero-emission vehicles – an increase of 63% from fiscal year 2022.

To help lead the charge – pun intended – at U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Exchange 2024 last month, Carnahan announced another new electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) product that  achieved FedRAMP authorization, which means their security measures have been vetted and authorized to operate in the federal marketplace.

Carnahan said it has been great to see these examples of the EVSE industry responding to the growing federal demand for EV charging stations. “We look forward to helping more American businesses to grow and thrive in the federal marketplace by supporting the sustainability of the federal footprint.” 

And GSA is also putting direct funding into federal EV infrastructure, with a recent announcement of $25 million in IRA funds for EV charging ports at 33 federal buildings across 21 states to keep the federal fleet charged and ready to drive.

Powering government with carbon pollution free electricity

Given the vast portfolio described above, it’s no surprise that the federal government is the nation’s largest energy consumer, and that means GSA can play a role in sourcing cleaner energy, too.

Through a growing number of Memorandums of Understanding with utility companies, the agency has crafted agreements that help ensure the sources of its energy become cleaner.

Most recently, GSA entered a MOU with El Paso Electric to support the development of carbon pollution-free electricity (CFE) that will serve the federal facilities in Southern New Mexico and West Texas.

Including this agreement, over the past three years, the federal government has signed agreements to provide federal facilities in about 18 states with 100% CFE by 2030. This will increase the government’s reliance on clean energy from 38% to 48% on its way to 100% by 2030. 

There are many more sustainability efforts underway at GSA – from cutting “forever chemicals” from custodial contracts to a new, governmentwide commitment to buying more sustainable products and services and deciding where to locate federal facilities with sustainability, equity and community engagement top of mind. 

GSA looks forward to celebrating Earth Day again next year to report on the progress it is making as a leader in addressing climate change to create jobs, save taxpayer dollars and create a healthier planet.