Just How Green Are State Governments?

  • June 30, 2015
  • By Rita Beamish

Tree© AP

California’s state Christmas tree shines from 10,000 ultra-low-wattage LED bulbs. State agencies routinely are told to meet energy-saving targets. Whether they do is often hard to determine. (AP)

When President Barack Obama this spring ordered federal agencies to cut their greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade — to 40 percent below 2008 levels — the concept was hardly novel to state governments. For years, governors and legislatures have set energy conservation targets for state agencies, to save taxpayers money, reduce pollution and set an environmentally friendly example.

States have employed a host of energy-saving programs, green-purchase requirements, building efficiency standards and financial incentive arrangements to meet those goals. So how are they doing in meeting targets they have set for themselves?

A spot check by Stateline found that although some states have made progress, follow through and accountability are mixed. When a new governor is elected, environmental goals and standards can go out the window or be changed. A lack of enforcement can doom good intentions. And poor reporting or bureaucratic tangles can make it nearly impossible for the public to measure progress.

Take Iowa, for example. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad rescinded a 2008 order by his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Chester Culver, establishing a Green Government Initiative that called for a 15 percent cut in state agencies’ overall energy and water use over five years.

Culver’s order, which rescinded an earlier one by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack, was deemed to have “created redundancy” in state efforts, said Jimmy Centers, Branstad’s communications director. Centers didn’t have data on whether state agencies had met Culver’s target because “these [executive orders] were signed by previous administrations,” he said. Nonetheless, he said, energy use at the state Capitol complex dropped 21.5 percent between 2008 and 2013.

In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott chose not to continue a 2007 executive order on climate change by his predecessor, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist. The order directed state agencies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 10 percent by 2012, and 40 percent by 2025. State officials said the quarterly progress reports that Crist ordered are nowhere to be found, nor do they think there was a reporting requirement after he left office.  

That priorities change with administrations shouldn’t come as a surprise, said Annie Gilleo, senior policy analyst for the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE).

“I think it’s common: Over time when you have a change in governor or political party, you see the executive orders tend to lose emphasis,” she said.

Still, Gilleo said, it’s important for states to continue to set an example by establishing specific energy goals.

“The results matter, but it also matters that the government is making public that it thinks energy savings and greenhouse gas savings are important,” she said. “The state is setting an example for the private sector and showing that if it implements policies that affect the public, the state agencies are willing to make the same commitment.”

Progress Not Always Lost

Revoking a previous administration’s goals and standards doesn’t always indicate a lack of progress or abandonment of attempts at measuring achievement.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued Executive Order 88 in 2012 directing agencies to improve energy efficiency in state buildings 20 percent by 2020, from a 2010 baseline. State government is on track to meet that target. Energy use per square foot dropped by 4.7 percent in the first year, and is projected to fall 6.9 percent after the third year, a 2013 progress report said. 

Cuomo’s directive revoked former Republican Gov. George Pataki’s executive order seeking a 35 percent cut in energy consumption below what state buildings used in 1990. State officials now characterize that as a voluntary program, but said that for buildings whose managers provided data, energy consumption dropped 22 percent by Pataki’s 2010 target date.

In Colorado, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is continuing to follow former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter’s order for state agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. In 2012, the most recent progress report showed the government was shy of its intermediate target.

As for another Ritter executive order, agencies achieved just a 9 percent reduction in their energy consumption relative to 2006 levels, short of Ritter’s 20 percent goal for 2012. The report stressed that efficiency per square foot had improved 21 percent as state office space expanded.

Hickenlooper is planning new one- and five-year environmental goals, including for reductions in energy and in emissions contributing to global warming, said Karen Phelan, deputy director of energy.

Goals Vary Between States

Over the years, surveys by ACEEE find, energy efficiency policies for state facilities have popped up in all states, varying widely in scope. Some seek an absolute reduction in energy consumption. Others account for growth by requiring efficiency per square foot of state building space — or per gallon in vehicles.

Some policies focus only on state-owned facilities; others include leased space. Some specify cuts in greenhouse gases, by nature involving a greater array of sources than energy reduction mandates. As for fleets, ACEEE found that 33 states have their own fuel efficiency mandates.

Timelines and targets, where they exist, also vary in aggressiveness.

Washington’s Legislature in 2009 issued a sweeping State Agency Climate Leadership Act to curb emissions. Incorporating all 141 state agencies — legislative, administrative, judicial and university branches — it aims to reduce emissions 57.5 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, with detailed online resources describing progress. Ferry boats, state vehicles and heavy equipment, building electricity, so-called fugitive gases that leak from air conditioners and other machinery, and even employee commutes are factored in, said Hedia Adelsman, the Department of Ecology special assistant for climate change.

As of 2014, state agency emissions were 4 percent below the 2005 baseline, and aggressive action — cutting emissions 11 percent below 2013 levels — was needed to reach the next interim target in 2020, a progress report concluded.    

“The agencies are plugging along. The beginning was easy, but now we are doing the big things,” like expensive upgrades to insulation, boilers and heating and cooling systems in state buildings, as well as state fleets, Adelsman said. With targets set by law, agencies “can’t just ignore it,” she said. “Some agencies are doing better than others.”

Arizona reported surpassing a more narrowly focused legislative target set in 2003. It sought to cut energy consumption in state buildings 15 percent per square foot by 2011, using a 2002 baseline. The Governor’s Office of Energy Policy reported that key strategies helping to reach 15.8 percent were the replacement of inefficient lighting and cooling equipment; installation of programmable thermostats; more moderate temperatures; and the impact of a reduced state workforce in 2009.

Arizona State University campuses also benefited from so-called performance contracting, which allows agencies to pay for energy efficiency upgrades with the cost savings realized over time. Arizona lawmakers have not set new numeric targets.

Measurement, Data Often Needed

State officials are still working on data to show whether Utah met former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman’s 2006 order to improve energy efficiency in government 20 percent by 2015. Energy Director John Harrington said his upcoming report will show state buildings have attained the goal. Agency reports so far have emphasized cost savings from ongoing efficiency programs and funding strategies to expand the State Building Energy Efficiency Program.

Incomplete reporting by overburdened bureaucrats can hinder public accountability, even where robust efficiency programs are in place.

In Alabama, staff shortages have made it impossible to know if state agencies met Republican Gov. Robert Bentley’s 2011 goal of dropping energy consumption 30 percent from a 2005 baseline by this year, said Mike Presley, public information manager for the state Department of Economic and Community Affairs. 

Without sufficient staff to recover data back to 2005, 2011 became the baseline. Between 2011 and 2014, state-owned buildings reduced their energy consumption 52 percent, Presley said. Key contributors were modernization of infrastructure, new efficient lighting and cooling and heating systems and the Alabama National Guard’s shift to a four-day workweek.

Alabama is one of several states now using an online tool provided by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to assess and track energy use. The EPA urges agencies to “benchmark” their operations, establishing a baseline measure of energy consumption against which changes can be measured.

“It’s a critical first step to improving energy efficiency of buildings. You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Mike Zatz, a manager for the EPA Energy Star program.

Transparency and Disclosure

California, known for its aggressive global-warming targets, stands out for easy-to-find public information on the government’s energy efficiency.

A graphics-friendly website tracks each agency’s progress on mandated reduction of energy and water use and greenhouse gas emissions. State agencies as a whole already have surpassed Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2020 goal to reduce their own emissions 20 percent below 2010 levels, achieving 26 percent as of 2013, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Massachusetts also posts detailed progress reports on its “Leading by Example” green program, launched in 2007 by then-Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat.

Mandates cover state executive branch agencies, universities and fleets. And the 2014 report shows that agencies met Patrick’s 2012 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent, en route to 40 percent by 2020, as well as his goal to increase renewable energy to 15 percent of state government’s consumption. State government fell short of the goal to reduce energy use per square foot by 20 percent, achieving just 3 percent, partly due to dramatic increase in college hours of operation, officials wrote.