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Embassies Teach Others How to "Go Green"
Diplomatic Pouch / September 30, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Anne Mette Vestergaard, deputy chief of mission at the Danish Embassy, rides her bike three miles to work and three miles back every day. Besides “getting a free workout,” as she puts it, not taking a car is this diplomat’s small way of fighting climate change. The British Embassy, meanwhile, has cut its monthly electric bill by 10 percent by “implementing all kinds of things that cost us next to nothing,” said embassy official Brian Funk.

All across Washington, foreign missions are discovering the political — and financial — benefits of going green.

On Sep. 21, the Canadian Embassy hosted an afternoon workshop and reception on the subject. The “D.C. Greening Forum” attracted some 80 participants from nearly a dozen embassies including those of France, Fiji, Italy, Slovenia, South Africa, Switzerland and Venezuela.

Marc LePage, special adviser for climate change and energy at the Canadian Embassy. This event, he said, is the second in a series of seminars co-sponsored by the State Department and the Earth Day Network; the first was held last year at the Finnish Embassy.

“This meeting was focused more on operational issues,” he told Diplomatic Pouch. “We were picked because we did an audit on this building. We’ve implemented lighting and water control measures as well as recycling and the use of natural gas. Overall, we reduced our energy usage by 33 percent from 2008 to 2009.”

LePage said it cost the Canadian government $3 million to achieve those efficiency upgrades using a performance contracting approach. The embassy, located next to the Newseum along Pennsylvania Avenue — five blocks from the U.S. Capitol — was built in the late 1980s and houses around 300 employees.

“It was a very successful program, and now we’re sharing our experiences,” he said. “This is a relatively new world for all of us. The State Department is doing its own efforts as well. This is a collaboration in the context of international climate change.”

In January, the Finnish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue became the first foreign mission in the District to win a gold star for its efforts. In awarding the embassy its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification, the nonprofit Green Building Council recognized Finland’s efforts to retrofit its U.S. mission to become a truly carbon-neutral building. That came just over a year after the same embassy was awarded the Energy Star by the Environmental Protection Agency.

With the notable exception of Canada, nearly all these “greening” initiatives seem to be coming from forward-thinking European missions in Washington.

One of the largest involved is the sprawling French Embassy on Reservoir Road.

“It appears that transportation was a major issue for us, as well as energy use. So we decided to do an audit two or three months ago, hiring a contractor for that. The results of that audit showed we could reduce our energy consumption by 30 percent,” said Isciane Rouziere, the embassy’s project manager.

“We have a list of 16 specific actions, and we’re trying to do them in order of importance,” she said, adding that it’ll take around four years for those efforts to pay off financially.

Suzanne de Groot, first secretary of economic affairs at the Dutch Embassy, said environmental sustainability is a major priority for her government.

“We really wanted to green our embassy but we didn’t know how to do it,” she told participants. “Our building was built in the ‘60s, so it’s old-fashioned. And our budget was cut by 25 percent this year because of the economic crisis. We were lucky to come across a Dutch company, Corporate Facility Partners, that specializes in these types of things.

“They have a database of buildings the U.S. and Europe, so they compared our building to others that are similar in age and usage. Based on this, they were able to tell us in which areas we were doing well, and in which areas we were doing not so well. All of this was done in four or five weeks. They advised us on how we could save energy, but they didn’t just look at energy consumption; they also looked at carbon emissions.”

Four months into its contract, the embassy is now 88 percent carbon-neutral; it expects to be 100 percent carbon-neutral by 2011. In the meantime, de Groot expects her embassy to save $250,000 to $300,000 on utility bills over the next two years.

Another speaker at the event was Stella Tarnay, green building specialist for the District of Columbia. The District is one of the first jurisdictions in the United States to require energy benchmarking of public and private buildings, and to apply LEED and Green Communities standards for publicly financed projects.

“There are all kinds of low-cost options that don’t cost much money; lighting solutions, weatherization and insulation alone can improve energy efficiency by 20 percent. Tuning your equipment gives a quick payback. So do the use of energy-efficient appliances,” Tarnay told her audience.

“The cheapest thing of all is occupant behavior, which doesn’t cost you a dime. If you can get your people to turn off their lights, computers and fans, you can really save a lot of energy — but that’s one of the most difficult things to do.”

Brian Funk has the unusual title of “regional greening manager” at the British Embassy, which has 480 employees. Merely by changing light bulbs, switching to natural gas and adopting other innovations he calls “low-hanging fruit” have resulted in substantial savings for the embassy.

But you don’t have to be a big European mission to see a difference, he said.

“Smaller embassies can use that to their advantage, because even if they might not have the resources larger ones have, one champion in an office of 20 people can really motivate change,” he said. “Without a doubt, everybody can learn from each other.”

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