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GSA strives to be 'green proving ground' for net-zero energy use

With all new government buildings required to be net-zero -- or to produce as much energy as they consume -- by 2030, the General Services Administration has begun converting some existing facilities to attain net-zero usage in an effort to learn what works and what does not. It aims to emerge as a "green proving ground" for other agencies and the private sector, a senior GSA official told Nextgov.

President Obama signed Executive Order 13514 in October 2009 setting sustainability goals for federal agencies and requiring them to submit a greenhouse pollution reduction target by 2020. The order reminded agencies of the existing requirement that buildings be designed to achieve net-zero energy use by 2030, and mandated all new building projects that enter the planning phase after 2020 be designed to meet that standard as well.

The new norm in the future will be net-zero, and GSA is starting down that path, said Steve Leeds, the agency's senior sustainability officer. GSA has announced plans to convert two existing buildings to net-zero status. One is the Wayne Aspinall Federal Building and Courthouse in Grand Junction, Colo., which will become the nation's first net-zero historic building when renovations are complete in 2013.The second is the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry in California, the nation's busiest border crossing, which will be net-zero by 2014. When those two federal buildings are complete, they will bring to eight the number of net-zero buildings nationwide both private and public, Leeds said.

GSA is uniquely positioned to undertake these projects and lead by example, Leeds said. "We are testing out technologies that will allow us to show the private sector how things work," he added. "We're in every state and therefore we're in every weather condition that could exist."

Because of the agency's size, failure at an individual building is considered acceptable. "Our denominator is large," Leeds said. "If we try something and it doesn't work, we absorb the risk so that other federal agencies take a look at what we're doing and learn from that."

In fact, the agency expects to fail sometimes. "Whenever you innovate, you take risk and when you take risk you fail from time to time," he said. "They key is to fail fast, fail forward and fail futility so you learn your lessons, don't re-create that, learn from it and move on. . . . That's what this is all about."

After the courthouse and port of entry projects, there will be future federal net-zero renovation plans, though the exact number is unclear. "We're constantly evaluating additional opportunities," Leeds said. "Think of that as a living lab. . . . It's, how do we get to where we need to be? You always have to start and move on."

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