Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jon Powers, Federal Environmental Executive in the White House council on Environmental Quality: Leading by Example

“Example isn’t another way to teach, it is the only way to teach.”  - Albert Einstein

Jon Powers, the Obama Administration’s Federal Environmental Executive within the White House Council on Environmental Quality recently addressed a packed room at the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado (  As Federal Environmental Executive, Jon is responsible for promoting environmental and energy sustainability across federal government operations. During this meeting Powers emphasized the Obama Administration’s commitment to lead by example as directed by Executive Order 13514 that sets sustainability goals for Federal agencies.  These goals are closely tied to environmental and economic performance as well as to our energy security.  While the scope of the Order is daunting - the Federal government occupies nearly 500,000 buildings, operates more than 600,000 vehicles, employs more than 1.8 million civilians, and purchases more than $500 billion per year in goods and services – the results that can emerge and are emerging by this lead by example strategy are staggering. 

A movement and culture shift of this size needs leadership, passion and determination.  Fortunately, these are skills that Jon Powers brings to the table. Powers told a story about his first days in the Army when his Platoon Sargent took him aside and said there are two types of leaders: those that lead by rank and those that lead by example.  Powers took leading by example on as a value and draws upon his intimate understanding of the impact of energy and sustainability on our security to focus on the initiatives under Executive Order 13514.

More than leadership, Powers demonstrates a commitment to learning about what is working and it is a goal of the Council to use that knowledge to replicate success stories.  For example, on his tour of Denver, Powers also visited with leaders at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) to discuss a joint federal/local government leadership team that created a sustainability challenge to increase conservation awareness, save natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The team consists of the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 8 and the City of Lakewood.  The sustainability challenge engaged employees with the goal of reducing carbon dioxide and educating local communities.  Some of their successes include a 1 MW Denver Federal Center Grid (DFC)-Tied Photovoltaic Solar Park.  The 6,192 panel site generates about 1,600,000 kWh per year – approximately 10 percent of the DFC's entire electrical demand.  Retrofits for interior lighting have reduced electrical demand by 3,765 kWh per year.  It is these types of strategies and partnerships that the Council on Environmental Quality is seeking to replicate, according to Powers. 

For the federal government to meet mandates for reductions in energy use, water use and GHG emissions, however, mechanisms are needed.  The government can leverage its buying power but there still need to be functional mechanisms to finance improvements and funding available for research and development and according to Powers, there are barriers. 

Federal funding supports research and development.  As one example, the Internet and GPS came out of R&D projects under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency created to develop technology beyond immediate requirements of the military.  Recognizing the need for transformational energy research “where success would drive dramatic benefits to the nation,” ARPA-E was funded in 2009 with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  These funding opportunities can also leverage partnerships with the Department of Defense and enable investment in high risk/high reward energy research.  A current challenge however, is that the House Republican Budget currently proposes a 19% cut to funds for clean energy.  These budget cuts would undermine the findings in the 2007 report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future,” the same report that recommended creation of ARPA-E.  The report found, in part: 

The United States takes deserved pride in the vitality of its economy, which forms the foundation of our high quality of life, our national security, and our hope that our children and grandchildren will inherit ever-greater opportunities. That vitality is derived in large part from the productivity of well-trained people and the steady stream of scientific and technical innovations they produce. Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living. Economic studies conducted even before the information-technology revolution have shown that as much as 85% of measured growth in US income per capita was due to technological change.

Another challenge is lack of data necessary to design appropriate funding mechanisms.  Powers noted Green Button as an innovative program directed towards data collection.  According to, “Green Button is an industry-led effort that responds to a White House call-to-action: provide electricity customers with easy access to their energy usage data in a consumer-friendly and computer-friendly format via a "Green Button" on electric utilities' website.”  Accurate energy information can not only empower consumers to make educated choices around managing their energy use but also provide data that innovators can use to produce new consumer applications that address energy management needs. 

In short, one important take away message was that the federal government is leading by example and at the same time, this work is creating data that we can use to innovate and educate from the ground up.  Having access to critical data is key in removing barriers to innovation.  Innovation is closely tied to our energy security – and thereby our national security, and to me, nothing is more compelling. 

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