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Sequester Carbon, Not Spending

by Erica Etelson
Sustainable Industries, February 27, 2013

We are just days away from the long-dreaded sequestration - $85 billion in spending cuts that will give Americans a taste of the same brand of austerity that sparked strikes and riots in Greece and Spain. We could avoid some of the more devastating cuts if we cut something that everyone loves to hate -wasted energy.

Every year, the federal government spends $7 billion on energy for its buildings, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). An aggressive push for renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements could cut this tab by 70%, saving the government $49 billion over ten years. The Bryon Rogers federal building in Denver, to take just one example, recently underwent a major energy retrofit that according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, reduced the building's energy usage by 70%.

Not only would such an initiative shrink the government's carbon footprint, it would act as a powerful booster shot for the renewable energy sector. The federal government owns half a million buildings. To keep those three billion square feet heated and lit, we can either keep forking over taxpayer dollars to coal-burning utilities or we could spend a smaller chunk of change, paying energy efficiency contractors and solar installers to permanently downsize these buildings' net energy consumption. This level of spending would create a massive national clean energy market, driving down prices for renewables which are already competitive with coal-fired electricity rates in many parts of the country. A drop of just a few more cents per kilowatt-hour and every homeowner from Oregon to Florida will be racing to get in on the solar gold rush already well underway in California.

By simply protecting its own budgetary resources, the government can lead the way to a lean and clean energy economy, one in which the only thing that gets sequestered is carbon. The government has already taken some steps to curb its energy consumption. In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order mandating a 30% reduction by 2015 and calling for at least 5% of electricity to come from renewables. When implemented, the Office of Management and Budget estimates the government will save $11 billion over a decade. Good, but not good enough.

A 5% renewables target is a seriously underwhelming goal given the installation capacity of the booming solar industry. With the widespread availability of Power Purchase Agreements, most of these installations could be done with no-upfront cost to the government: the agencies would pay the installer monthly for the power generated by the systems.

Look at what cash-strapped school districts are doing: the Jurupa Unified School District in California announced $34 million in projected savings through a combination of solar and energy efficiency retrofits. In Pennsylvania, three schools are going solar to the tune of $1.5 million in avoided energy costs. And a tiny school district in Fresno, California will save $9 million by going solar, enough to save its music program. What federal programs would you like to see spared?

Erica Etelson
Sequester Carbon, Not Spending
Sustainable Industries, February 27, 2013

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