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Carnahan wants to 'green' federal buildings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 4, 2011 - WASHINGTON - If you think your energy bill has been high this winter, consider the federal government's annual energy tab: about $24.5 billion.

An estimated $7 billion of that sum was spent on the energy costs of operating federal buildings across the nation, including 48 buildings in the St. Louis area totaling about 6.5 million square feet.

Last month, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and three colleagues that aims to make a small dent in those costs by training workers to reduce the amount of energy used in federal buildings. The other sponsors were U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., and U.S. Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Susan Collins, R-Me.

The new law, called the Federal Buildings Personnel Training Act, directs the federal government's landlord agency -- the General Services Administration (GSA) -- to identify the skills that federal energy managers need to operate buildings in line with industry best practices. The agency would then work with industry and colleges or training centers to teach workers those skills.

"The federal government is the largest building manager in the country and has a great opportunity to lead by example" in making buildings more efficient, Carnahan told the Beacon in an interview. "And training was one of the missing pieces."

The congressman cited a study by the International Facility Management Association that found that, for every dollar spent on facility management training, organizations reported receiving an average of $3.95 in return.

"It's a smart investment," Carnahan said. "And if you've got these high-performance buildings, it's important to have the personnel trained to operate them at peak efficiency -- so you get the biggest bang for your buck."

Emily Andrews, executive director of the Missouri Gateway Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council -- which developed the LEED green building rating system about a decade ago -- told the Beacon that the new law is important because "buildings don't run themselves. It takes a knowledgeable workforce to be able to operate them in a way that is efficient."

Pointing out that "the GSA is pretty much the largest landlord and mandated that all of its new construction be LEED-certified or an equivalent rating," Andrews said the new law "addresses the ongoing maintenance and operations of existing federal buildings and any new buildings. It pushes the staff to be up to date in their certifications and training."

Impact on the region

Will it have an influence in the region? "I think that's going to have a huge impact nationwide as well as at the GSA buildings here in St. Louis. We hope this will create opportunities in the building industry," said Andrews, who also noted that the area now has   about 80 LEED-certified commercial buildings and about 50 certified residential buildings. "The vision is to transform the 'built environment' so that all buildings are 'green' within a generation," she said.

A spokesman for the GSA's regional office in Kansas City said Monday that the federal government owns 63 buildings in Missouri, with a total of 10 million square feet. Of those, 48 buildings with about 6.5 million square feet are in the St. Louis area. The largest are the Robert A. Young federal office building (right) and the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse downtown, each of which has about 1 million square feet.

The area's largest complex of federal buildings is at 4300 Goodfellow Blvd. in north St. Louis, which houses offices of several agencies of the Defense and Agriculture departments.

A few years ago, managers of the Young building, using funds from a GSA contract with Ameren UE, hired a consulting firm to identify improvements to make the building more energy efficient by installing what are known as variable frequency drives for its chillers and variable frequency motors for the air handling units -- allowing those units to increase and lower the amount of circulating air gradually. The building's annual energy bill dropped by about $140,000 a year.

Carnahan said the idea for the legislation originated in his district. "We had a 'green buildings' conference in St. Louis [in 2007] to highlight a lot of the cutting-edge work that was going on in the area and to bring together people from the building industry, banking, environmental groups, architects, labor unions and educators.

"So I saw some examples of the best practices in St. Louis and came back to Washington, where we were having energy debates," continued Carnahan. "It really struck me how people debating energy issues seldom mentioned buildings, which represent about 40 percent of the equation."

He and Biggert organized the High Performance Buildings Caucus, which then formed a coalition with energy and industry groups with similar interests.

"We think there is a tremendous cost-saving opportunity nationally for the government, but also it will support a lot of technologies that can be used in buildings -- whether solar panels or new air conditioning systems or energy-efficient windows -- and create jobs for small- and medium-sized companies in America," said Carnahan.

"We're looking for a location in St. Louis to highlight some of the exciting things going on at federal buildings there."

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