A Plan to Make Washington as Green as Google

At the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., roughly 30 percent of the company's energy is created from rooftop solar panels Photograph by Erin Siegal/Redux

The U.S. government is the nation’s largest energy consumer. It accounted for 1.5 percent of the country’s total energy use in 2009 (the most recent year for which figures are available) and spent $24.5 billion the previous year on fuel and electricity for its roughly 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles.

Two senators want to require the government to reduce these numbers and help federal agencies meet President Obama’s 2009 demand to cut down on their emissions 28 percent by 2020. The Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, introduced on Thursday by New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Ohio Republican Rob Portman, would force agencies to invest in energy-saving software and other technologies to help manage power use in federal buildings and in big, energy-guzzling data centers. It would also require them to redesign and consolidate data centers to save power.

In response to protests from environmental groups, companies including Apple, Google, and Facebook have already redesigned their data centers to make them more fuel-efficient by doing such things as installing thermostats and energy-monitoring software that can slow systems down during off-peak hours.

Robert Mosher, director of government relations at the Washington (D.C.)-based Alliance to Save Energy, says the government is likely to adopt similar tools if the bill passes, which would give a huge boost to the fast-growing fuel-efficiency industry. Citing a study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Mosher says the bill would support 93,000 jobs by 2020. That’s one reason it has widespread support from both environmentalists and the private sector, including the National Association of Manufacturers—no friend of the Obama administration’s environmental initiatives. Dozens of companies, including AT&T and General Electric, have also signed on.

Especially attractive to companies: The bill also offers financing for owners of commercial and residential buildings to buy technologies that cut down on fuel use. And it contains no penalties for businesses that don’t meet set targets. Unlike most other environmental proposals—auto emissions, cap and trade—it’s almost all carrot, no stick.

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