Government’s Sustainability Efforts Present ‘Big Data Opportunity’


A combination of recent federal policies and emerging technologies have the potential to significantly curb agencies’ energy spending.

The federal government owns or operates some 500,000 buildings across the world, and it spends billions of dollars each year heating, cooling and pumping water to and from them.

The numbers are staggering. The Defense Department alone spends $20 billion annually on energy consumption, according to Sharon Burke, former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy.

Speaking Oct. 28 in Washington, D.C., Burke, who’s now a senior adviser at the New America Foundation, said about $4 billion of that total goes toward electricity, with the “lion’s share” spent on actual military operations.

Yet, a combination of recent federal policies – the administration’s Climate Action Plan, a 2009 executive order and other federal sustainability efforts – and emerging technologies have the potential to significantly curb energy spending for defense and civilian agencies without reducing functionality.

“There’s no pushing efficiency if it is at odds with the mission because it won’t survive,” said Burke, alluding to the notion that any successful green initiative will only be as successful as its ability to improve mission performance.

“There are a lot of opportunities for improving without losing performance,” Burke added. “It’s key because the second you lose performance, you lose.”

Discovering new Technologies

One of the unique offshoots in the government’s green efforts is the Green Proving Ground, a department housed within the General Services Administration.

The Green Proving Ground leverages GSA’s vast real-estate portfolio to transparently evaluate emerging green technologies such as energy management, lighting and on-site energy generation.

The proving ground examines technologies in partnership with national laboratories and makes recommendations on whether to “broadly deploy, target deploy or not to deploy,” across government, according to GSA Chief Greening Officer Eleni Reed.

Thus far, assessed green technologies that have shown promise include advanced power strips, condensing boilers, magnetic levitation chillers and wireless network sensors, though 26 technology evaluations are ongoing across federal buildings across the country.

Efforts at the Green Proving Ground could further GSA’s successes in energy efficiency.

Reed said GSA has reduced carbon emissions by 53 percent in its building operations, and the agency spearheaded successful sustainability outcomes through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That includes a 19 percent energy consumption reduction and 120 million gallons of water saved annually across almost 500 federal buildings and renewable energy generation capabilities in 89 buildings.

Reed said big data and analytics are beginning to play a role in the government’s sustainability efforts, too.

GSA’s “Smart Metering” initiative, Reed said, highlights how applied analytics can be run on large data sets – showing power consumption, for example -- to improve efficiencies.

Under the initiative, GSA was able to obtain consumption data every 15 minutes over a catalog of 400 federal buildings. The data is useful to property managers who can notice changes in consumption patterns in near real-time. It’s akin to a building telling its manager where and when it is using energy.

“Property managers can identify spikes and analyze trends, year after year, and take action to correct,” Reed said.

What about Security?

Smart buildings that provide real-time analytics sound like a great concept, but there’s an underlying danger -- especially for those involved in military operations.

Energy consumption, just like any other data, could feasibly be vulnerable to cyber adversaries.

“There are security vulnerabilities in the era of big data with smart metering, because loads could signify activity,” said Jeffrey Johnson, regional command information officer for Naval District Washington.

Naval District Washington accounted for those vulnerabilities in its recent “Smart Shore” initiative, Johnson said.

The pilot project aimed to ultimately reduce the cost of utility delivery across facilities, but one of the keys to its success, Johnson said, was measuring demand on each system. Of course, that information in the wrong hands could be dangerous, so Johnson said Naval District Washington did not explicitly name the system each load came from.

Even with unauthorized access to metered data, an adversary wouldn’t have the ability to tie it to specific systems. Altogether, the pilot has created some major efficiency gains for Naval District Washington without compromising security or performance, Johnson said. 

(Image via Chones/