The M Files

Tag: Martha Johnson

Accelerating a Culture of Net Zero Energy

by on Mar.29, 2012, under Business, Construction Services & Building Design, Energy Services, Mechanical Contracting

On Monday, April 2, news broke of Martha Johnson's resignation from the GSA amid an investigation into excessive spending for a conference in Las Vegas. We'll be watching with interest to see if the new GSA administrative team maintains a culture of accelerating toward large-scale Net Zero Energy or if, in their own respect, deep energy retrofits also prove to represent excess spending.

Last week I attended the NAESCO* federal energy workshop held in Washington, DC. The keynote speaker was Martha Johnson, Administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA). The GSA is responsible for improving the government’s workplace by managing assets, preserving historic property, delivering maximum value in acquisitions, and implementing technology solutions. Their portfolio of buildings is massive, comprising about 360 million square feet.

The title of Ms. Johnson’s presentation was “Moving Toward Net Zero Energy: Accelerating Energy Efficiency Investment at Federal Facilities.”

You might recall that I reported on the status of President Obama’s Executive Order which mandated Net Zero Energy in federal buildings by 2030, a few months ago. In that post, I presented many of the technical and financial barriers to effectively hitting the Net Zero target by 2030. While those barriers are real and significant, listening to Martha Johnson for 30 minutes had me on the Net Zero bandwagon. I can appreciate why she was appointed to head the GSA.

She gave an inspired pitch for what she described as our current generation’s version of JFK’s moon shot challenge. She clearly believes that Net Zero by 2030 is attainable but, in one critical respect, the challenge is about more than the concrete goal of zero energy in our buildings. In her words, “It’s not just about getting to zero, it’s about the culture and broadening connection to the common mission.” And my observation from the workshop is that the culture is beginning to shift.

She went on to describe their deep energy retrofit challenge, which targets 30 buildings in 17 states. Deep energy retrofits, which target 60% or more savings from initial baseline conditions, present difficult financial hurdles. Savings of greater than 30% usually require significant capital investments. To overcome the obstacles, Ms. Johnson encouraged the audience of about 200 energy services contractors, vendors, and stakeholders to broaden their standard approach of picking low—hanging energy fruit to produce fast ROIs. She pointed out that, “The GSA isn’t interested in ‘incremental-ism’ or ‘piecemeal’ anymore. The G-S-A is stepping on the G-A-S.”

It was good to observe that, despite the inspirational big picture pitch, she’s a realist. Again in her words, “Energy use is as much about behavior as it is green bling.”

Successful migration toward Net Zero with deep energy retrofits will require equal parts of a cultural shift, a broadened technical and financial approach, and changes in operational and individual behaviors. Restating some points from my earlier post:

  • With current technologies, Net Zero will only be achievable with very significant capital investments that go far beyond what most businesses and government entities would consider an acceptable return on investment (ROI).
  • McClure Company’s experiences coincide with others’ in that acceptable ROIs are achievable when reducing energy use by 10% to 30%. Deep energy retrofits of 60% or more savings require large capital contributions.
  • Finances aside, an assessment by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that we could achieve the goal of Zero Energy on only 22% of our building stock with current technologies as of 2005, while 80% of our existing buildings will still be in use in 2030.

I’ll be watching the GSA deep energy retrofit challenge with great interest. Though the financial and technical challenges to large scale success are daunting, the GSA appears to have an ideal leader to shepherd the process. She won me over.

What are your views of deep energy retrofits? Can we accelerate our industry toward a Net Zero energy future? What process, product, or financing innovations do we need to clear the financial and technical hurdles?

Here's a good explanation of the Net Zero energy concept.


*The National Association of Energy Services Companies.



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