Politics & Policy

Billions Spent on Green Upgrades with no Proof that They Saved Energy

Edith Green/Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Ore.

The federal government spent more than $4.28 billion in stimulus money on green upgrades to public buildings — but today, it has no idea if those huge expenditures actually made the facilities any more energy efficient.

“I don’t have the data to say that,” says Nick Goco, the General Services Administration’s deputy assistant inspector general for real-property audit. “To date, the system being used to evaluate the Recovery Act projects has not been fully populated with the data needed to evaluate the project. . . . We don’t know,” he says.

The GSA Office of Inspector General examined 45 full or partial upgrades to government buildings, funded by $2.47 billion in stimulus funds. Though each location was supposed to track data on energy-efficiency yields, many relied on “incomplete, outdated, and unverified data,” the inspector general’s report says.

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Though the Energy Policy Act requires federal buildings to track consumption of energy by the hour, some of the buildings receiving stimulus funds had their meters disconnected for two months or longer.

“Businesses do energy conservation all the time, and they tend to do it fairly well, because it’s their money. With the government’s money, at the end of the day, they don’t care.”

— Daniel Kish

“I’m not surprised,” says Daniel Kish, senior vice president for policy at the Institute for Energy Research. “There’s little accountability. Whether it’s Solyndra or a myriad of other companies that have gone bad, the federal government just doubles down when they get it stupid the first time. Businesses do energy conservation all the time, and they tend to do it fairly well, because it’s their money. With the government’s money, at the end of the day, they don’t care.”

Goco says the inspector general will conduct another audit determining whether stimulus-funded green buildings are actually saving energy as promised.

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But earlier reports call the effectiveness of the stimulus-funded green upgrades into question.

For example, in 2013, the inspector general’s office highlighted the waste of stimulus money at the Public Building Service’s regional offices in D.C. The agency spent $110,887 in stimulus money to pay a contractor for a roofing upgrade that was nixed before construction ever began.

The Public Building Service’s D.C. office also spent $877,152 on a remodel to create an open workspace, which it claimed would help move the office toward a “zero environmental footprint.” The agency said the upgrades would pay for themselves in 45 years. But the inspector general’s office said cost savings wouldn’t kick in for 4,617 years, noting the main purpose of the project appeared to be improving the regional commissioner’s office.  Altogether, “these renovations were not a cost-effective use of Recovery Act funds,” the report concluded.

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In another instance, the federal government spent $133 million in stimulus cash to install a “vegetative façade” at the Edith Green/Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, a project that was supposed to provide greener insulation. But as Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn noted in 2009, it cost roughly the same to install a similar façade at a much larger federal building in San Francisco, which raised questions about cost overruns in Portland.

“We do know one thing: It lined the pockets of a lot of Democrats,” says Peter Morici, a professor of business at the University of Maryland. “I don’t think you’ll find many people who voted for Romney on those projects. . . . I think [the buildings] are probably greener, but they’re probably not as green as they’re supposed to be. A lot of this technology doesn’t work out as planned.”

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