At this time of partisan wrangling in Congress, energy efficiency stands as a rare issue that crosses party lines to garner bipartisan consensus.

That comes as no surprise to efficiency advocates, who know that energy-efficiency programs are one of our best national investments. By lowering energy costs, they return more money to the economy than they cost taxpayers.

The ENERGY STAR program that labels the most energy-efficient products on the market is a prime example. At a cost to the federal government of well under $100 million annually, ENERGY STAR products cut energy costs for consumers and businesses by a whopping $17 billion in 2009 alone!

Similarly, dollars spent by federal agencies to make their own buildings more energy-efficient–using appropriated funds or “third-party” investments by utilities and private energy service companies (ESCOs)–save taxpayer dollars.

According to the latest published data, federal agencies’ investments of about $2.8 billion in energy-saving projects from 2003 to 2007 helped cut total energy use by 8%. Had it not been for these electricity and natural gas savings, due in large part to capital investments and improved operations, the federal tab for energy would have been nearly $500 million higher in 2007 alone.

Agency Honor Roll

Earlier this year, the federal government decided to release scorecards showing how much energy and taxpayer money federal agencies are saving with energy efficiency.

13 federal agencies (the Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services (HHS), Homeland Security, Interior, Justice, Labor, Transportation and Treasury Departments, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), General Services Administration (GSA), National Archives and Tennessee Valley Authority) scored “green” (the top score) on specific energy and sustainability efforts, including establishing emission reduction targets, reducing energy intensity, using renewable energy and reducing water use.

Those agencies reduced energy intensity by at least 15% in targeted facilities compared with 2003 levels and are on track for a 30% reduction by 2015. Many agencies–including Commerce, HHS, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State and Treasury, EPA, GSA, NASA, Social Security Administration and Smithsonian Institution–also reduced fleet petroleum use by at least 10% compared with 2005 levels and are on track for a 20% reduction by 2020.

The potential is impressive and significant. If federal agencies stay on track to meet their energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals, the government will save a cumulative $8 to $11 billion in taxpayer dollars by 2020. Those saved dollars can be used productively to reduce the deficit and/or grow and sustain our economy.

Alliance Applauds The Steps

Like proud parents–or at least supportive mentors–the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that has promoted energy efficiency since 1977, was particularly excited to see the scores. That’s because in 1998 the Alliance released a report, “Leading by Example,” calling on the federal government to do just that by using energy efficiency in “its own house.”

Throughout the last and current decades, the bipartisan Alliance has continued to push, prod, cheer and cajole the federal government into increasing federal agencies’ energy efficiency thereby cutting the energy costs ultimately borne by taxpayers.

Transparency Will Lead To Savings

We at the Alliance applaud not only the federal government’s commitment to energy and sustainability goals and benchmarking progress towards them, but also the commitment to transparency that the scorecards exemplify.

That transparency enables parties ranging from energy efficiency advocates to policymakers and citizens to see exactly how much the government is saving with efficiency and other sustainability measures.

More Energy Efficiency Is On The Way

The scorecards are just the beginning. Other laudable government energy efficiency initiatives include the May 2010 commitment to double the federal hybrid vehicle fleet, estimated to increase fuel efficiency equivalent to cutting petroleum use by 7.7 million gallons of gas or 385,000 barrels of oil, and government-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets cumulatively eliminating the equivalent of 101 million barrels of oil by 2020.

Already, the federal government has reduced GHG pollution by 2.5 million metric tons of CO2, compared to its 2008 baseline.

Challenges Remain

Notwithstanding the enormous energy efficiency gains the federal government has made to date, much more remains to be done; and there are challenges to overcome before energy efficiency is deployed to its fullest potential.

Nationwide, the federal government owns or operates about 500,000 buildings, some decades old. Energy efficiency upgrades can require significant “up front” capital in order to realize long-term savings. And upgrades are but one important step – energy use must be managed and systems optimized.

But as the Alliance itself demonstrated this year by significantly improving energy efficiency at the nation’s second-oldest diplomatic building–the 230-year-old residence of US Ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman–such hurdles can be overcome, given adequate commitment and resources.

For now, we eagerly await continued progress on this federal sustainability path, as federal agencies chart their progress towards energy and sustainability goals, identify areas needing improvement and focus attention on new opportunities to expand on successes.

And in the meantime, we applaud the continuing ability of federal energy efficiency initiatives to save taxpayers money and achieve the rare bipartisan agreement that is so elusive.

Photo Caption: This photo, from MoneyBlogNews, was originally posted on Flickr.

Kateri Callahan is the President of Alliance to Save Energy.