Stimulus: Uncle Sam goes green

$4.5 billion plan to make federal buildings more energy efficient could go a long way to reduce emissions and costs over the long run.

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By David Goldman, CNNMoney.com staff writer

How effective do you think the Geithner plan to spur lending will be?
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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The $787 billion economic stimulus bill aims to create millions of jobs around "shovel-ready" projects.

That's where Paul Prouty says he can help: He has 500 projects ready to go.

Prouty heads the U.S. General Services Administration, an under-the-radar government agency that owns or leases more than 352 million square feet of space in 8,600 federal buildings in 2,200 cities and towns.

Among other responsibilities, the agency is tasked with cutting costs and emissions in the buildings it controls. The stimulus bill provides GSA with $4.5 billion for energy efficiency.

"By investing in our backlog of well-planned, worthy and needed infrastructure projects, we can help stimulate jobs ... while stimulating long-term growth in energy efficient technologies, alternative energy solutions and green buildings," Prouty said in testimony Wednesday before a House committee.

The effort has long been at the top of President Obama's to-do list, dating back to his presidential campaign. It later became one of the key elements of his stimulus plan, as he promised to make 75% of federal buildings more energy efficient.

At a press conference last Monday night, Obama defended the measure from critics, saying it's money well-spent.

"We're creating jobs immediately by retrofitting these buildings. And we are saving taxpayers," Obama said. "Why wouldn't we want to make that kind of investment?"

Experts say the investment could create up to 130,000 jobs, save the government more than $1 billion in annual energy costs and improve worker productivity.

That could help trim the enormous $6.5 billion in energy costs the government spent on its buildings in 2007. And it would cut back on pollution - federal buildings account for nearly 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Department of Energy.

To lower those costs and emissions, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007 to reduce federal buildings' energy consumption by 30% by 2015.

Experts say the stimulus plan could help the government make major strides toward that goal.

"We won't go beyond the 30% goal with this plan, but this stimulus will certainly help them go further to achieve it," said Harry Gordon, chairman of architecture firm Burt Hill. "We achieved it in the past, and this will help to considerably reduce our carbon footprint."

Ready-to-go, ready to work

GSA said many retrofits will be cheap and fast, as energy efficiency improvements can be as simple as placing thicker insulation, installing LED lights, replacing windows and installing water-saving toilets.

The agency also said it is identifying a number of bigger projects that can be quickly deployed in federal buildings, including installation of solar panels on roofs, installing high-tech energy meters and smart lighting systems that adjust to daylight.

"The government is going to go for projects that have a greater impact, which provide a very rapid return on taxpayers' investment," Gordon said. "It will result in substantial energy use reductions, which will benefit taxpayers and reduce climate impact. Improving energy efficiency in buildings is truly the 'low-hanging fruit'."

One example of the 500 ready-to-go projects is the Internal Revenue Service building in Andover, Mass. The building has a structure and location that make it a good candidate for solar roof panels, which GSA said will reduce heating and cooling loads and provide electricity for the building.

Experts say the plan is timely and necessary due to high levels of construction unemployment and historically low levels of construction projects in companies' pipelines. Construction unemployment has risen to 18.2% in the country, with 1.7 million out-of-a-job construction workers waiting for work, according to the Labor Department.

"As soon as these contracts are awarded, contractors are going to beef up their labor force," said Ken Simonson chief economist at the Associated General Contractors of America. "GSA will begin to roll out those contracts within 90 days, and you'll start to see construction workers back to work."

More can be done

But some say the plan does not go far enough. Obama pledged to modernize more than 75% of federal buildings, but the $4.5 billion to update those buildings may be spread too thinly.

"You can certainly change light bulbs in 75% of buildings, but there is an opportunity to do much deeper retrofits in many buildings," said Andrew Goldberg, director of federal relations at the American Institute of Architects. "The question is how deep will those retrofits be."

The original House bill had proposed $7.7 billion for the projects, but the Senate compromise bill knocked it down. Experts say that will result in nearly 60,000 fewer jobs created.

"This decision, made behind closed doors without public consultation or review is short-sighted and contrary to the stated goals of the [stimulus bill], including the primary goal: job creation," said Gordon.

Still, experts say the plan is a good start, but much more needs to be done.

"Overall, agencies have identified far more projects that need funding to restore things to condition they were in, let alone add capacity," said Simonson, who estimates the need exceeds what's in this bill by multiple of five to 10.

"This is a good down payment, and will put several hundred thousand construction workers back to work, but it is not by any means enough to meet our long term goals." To top of page

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