By Dave Shaffer and Peter Brukx
With more than 20,000 buildings in nearly 289 different locations, the Department of State has a global platform to highlight sustainability and resilience practices that showcase American innovation and promote conservation and efficiency. The Greening Diplomacy Initiative (GDI) is the Department’s overarching sustainability driver. GDI is supported by an executive team in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions (M/SS) and hundreds of volunteers. GDI works to improve the environmental performance and sustainability of the Department’s worldwide facilities and operations and practice eco-diplomacy by leveraging internal programs and best practices in environmental policy, communications, and technologies to host nations and the public. GDI coordinates the Department’s compliance with relevant statute and executive orders, conducts internal and external outreach, and incubates innovative new projects and programs.
Ten years ago, the first GDI Awards highlighted exceptional leadership in sustainability at posts and facilities overseas.
“We created the GDI Awards to give our Green Teams the awareness and appreciation they deserve,” said Janice DeGarmo, a founding member of GDI and now deputy director of M/SS. “Around the world, posts are coming up with creative ways to green their operations and engage their host governments. The awards provide a platform for recognition.”
This positive innovation loop between field and headquarters drives continued progress, such as developing innovative programs like MeterNet. This program has identified more than $2.3 million in annual cost savings and 16,446,500 in kWh/year savings across the first tranche of 47 posts—enough energy to power more than 1,500 American households for a full year. More than 110 Green Teams worldwide share and use best practices and adapt and build on them to identify the next set of challenges and solutions to improve overall sustainability and resilience.
The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) works hand-in-hand with the GDI team to manage, measure, and reduce the environmental footprint of the U.S. government’s global portfolio of facilities. OBO manages the design, construction, acquisition, maintenance, use, and sale of U.S. diplomatic facilities around the globe. Its mission is to provide safe, secure, functional, and resilient facilities that represent the U.S. government to the host nation and support the Department’s U.S. foreign policy priorities. These facilities also represent American values and the best in American architecture, design, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture, and construction execution. OBO has built a global resilience strategy to help make Department facilities durable, adaptable, and reliable. For the 10th anniversary of GDI in 2019, OBO and M/SS created the GDI Resilience Award to support innovation at U.S. embassies and consulates further. OBO dedicated $1 million in both fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to support making the exceptional ideas for improving operational sustainability and resilience a reality.
“At the onset of my tenure we incorporated ‘resilience’ into the OBO mission to advocate for all of the many ways we collectively maintain, sustain, and adapt to local and global risks,” said OBO Director Addison “Tad” Davis IV. “I am proud that OBO is supporting this award, for the second year in a row, to recognize innovative ideas from the field that advance the Department’s environmental resilience in its facilities.”
The 2019 winners already see benefits from their projects. The original and forward-thinking solutions in the inaugural submissions were inspiring, as winners capitalized on technologies such as solar arrays, water catchment and reuse, waste management, and more.
In Johannesburg, the 2019 Resilience Grant helped pay for the installation of a new rainwater system for the gardens at the consulate general. Before the grant, it depended in part on dwindling city water to sustain the gardens. When looking for another way to supply water and increase their operational independence, consulate staff found an extra 400,000-liter water tank used to collect stormwater—more than enough capacity to replace the city water use. The Resilience Grant was used to install a treatment system that would clean the water enough to use it for the garden with no effects. In just five months since the installation of the system, it supplied more than 1 million liters of water to the consulate grounds, saving the Department almost $3,000. This is especially remarkable during the dry season—the consulate expects the savings to increase as the wet season approaches.
The Resilience Grant also contributed to Embassy Bern’s effort to curtail air pollution and noise. Previously, the embassy had used gasoline-powered landscaping equipment to maintain their grounds, which cost approximately $4,000 in fuel and emitted more than one ton of carbon dioxide per year. But with the Resilience Grant, the embassy received funding to purchase electric landscaping equipment and install a solar charging station, bringing their ongoing emissions and fuel costs to zero. The new solar equipment demonstrates the American commitment to being a model of environmental efficiency around the world and positions the embassy to comply with future Swiss emissions regulations.
Despite the hardships of putting proposals together during the pandemic, this year saw a 30 percent increase in the number of submissions. The submissions addressed multiple areas of resilience, from energy sources to waste management, and came from every region.
Of the 12 winners in 2020, many reflect a theme of protecting water resources. Two projects, in Lilongwe and Harare, will address water shortfalls in their respective regions by drilling boreholes that operate with solar-powered pumps. Two other winners, Panama City and Skopje, will install rainwater catchments to reduce the amount of municipal water they need for their operations. Another two winners, Amman and Dili, will reduce their water use by overhauling their car wash systems to make them more efficient and recover wastewater. In Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, the embassy will install a native landscape—Moorish lawn—which will reduce their water consumption and provide habitat for native species. Embassy Bamako will purchase new water nozzles to reduce their water use and expand their recycling program to include all residences.
Other projects will be leveraged into partnerships with the host government. Embassy Valletta’s project—the installation of 600 units of LED lights throughout the embassy compound—will help them become a leader in partnering with Malta to promote its National Energy and Climate Plan, which encourages increased energy efficiency as one of its five pillars. Embassy Brasilia plans to leverage their smart thermostat pilot program as a new technological application to increase efficiency in their host country. The smart thermostats pair with the standard split-pack air conditioning units found in Brazil to maintain a consistent temperature in a residence and make use of occupancy schedules to prevent cooling an empty house. The embassy hopes by demonstrating the efficacy of the new technology on its compounds, it can persuade the Brazilian government to begin utilizing the tech in operations.
The final two winners focus on waste management and improving energy efficiency. Embassy Kathmandu will improve their waste management system by expanding the partnership with their recycling vendor to include other sustainability services, like segregating different types of waste, providing metrics for recycling efficacy, and installing a quick composter in the office compound. Embassy Rangoon plans to retrofit LED lights throughout the embassy compound, culminating in an estimated return on investment within six years.
With resilience as a guiding principle, OBO and GDI stand together to continue safeguarding the future of their facilities, improve operations, and promote a positive environment for U.S. diplomatic personnel and host communities. In mid- to late-September, GDI plans to release an app that will provide Department personnel and the public with reliable air quality data overseas. Learn more about the Department’s GDI program and their upcoming initiatives here. Learn more about OBO’s mission here.
Dave Shaffer is an energy manager at the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. Peter Brukx is an eco-pathways intern with the Greening Diplomacy Initiative, located within the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions.