Federal purchasing is a powerful tool, and the Biden administration wants to leverage it in the climate crisis. Government has already begun to include more sustainability language and requirements in its IT contracts, with more federal acquisition regulations on the way.
The General Services Administration (GSA) has already taken steps to begin promoting green procurement in response to last December's executive order that calls for environmentally conscious acquisition. The directive and its accompanying Federal Sustainability Plan set goals to achieve a carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions economy-wide by no later than 2050.
The order directs agencies to pursue procurement strategies to reduce contractor emissions and embodied emissions and tasked GSA with tracking greenhouse gas emissions from major federal suppliers. The Biden Administration called upon agencies to incentivize markets for sustainable products and services; maximize environmental benefits and cost savings through full lifecycle cost mythologies; prioritize products that can be reused, refurbished, and recycled; purchase products that contain recycled content, are biobased, or are energy and water-efficient; purchase products and services recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); reduce emissions; and support resilient supply chains.
President Biden’s May 2021 executive order on climate-related financial risk directed the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council (FAR council) to consider amendments to “require major federal suppliers to publicly disclose greenhouse gas emissions, climate-related financial risk, and to set science-based reduction targets.” A FAR draft proposed rule is currently in process. It also asked the FAR council to consider amendments to “ensure that major Federal agency procurements minimize the risk of climate change, including requiring the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions to be considered in procurement decisions and, where appropriate and feasible, give preference to bids and proposals from suppliers with a lower social cost of greenhouse gas emissions.”
President Biden’s Janurary 2021 executive order on tackling the climate crisis required agencies to identify opportunities for federal funding to “spur innovation, commercializing, and deployment of clean energy technologies and infrastructure.” It also directed agencies to create climate action plans describing steps to "bolster adaptation and increase resilience to the impacts of climate change” for agency facilities and operations. These plans must address the "power of procurement.”
Greenhouse Gas Emission Disclosures
At last month’s Climate Leadership Conference, Chief Sustainability Officer Andrew Mayock said that a rule requiring major federal government suppliers to report greenhouse gas emissions, climate risks and reduction targets would be coming “in the very near future.”
Some vehicles are getting ahead of the upcoming requirements. GSA's Alliant 2 services contract requires greenhouse gas emission disclosures and reduction targets as a deliverable from contractors, and the same will be true of its successor.
“We’re in the middle of market research for the Alliant 3 governmentwide acquisition contract,” said Laura Stanton, assistant commissioner for IT category at GSA, at the Data Center Sustainability Summit. “As we move forward, we are looking to continue this practice in gathering those greenhouse gas emissions disclosures, as we go into the next generation of the Alliant program.”
Other recent GSA contracts, such as the small business-focused Polaris vehicle, give applicants the option to provide sustainable practices and impact statements.
Climate Risk Assessments
GSA’s Climate Risk Assessment Plan outlines how the agency will adapt to sea-level rise and extreme weather events. As part of this plan, GSA committed to reviewing government-wide telecommunications and IT acquisitions of $100 million and greater to ensure that climate risk is addressed in their supply chains.
“From deadly hurricanes and floods to devastating droughts and wildfires, the impacts of climate change are already being felt across the country,” GSA Administrator Robin Carnahan said in a press release. “While we continue to lead by example to decarbonize the federal footprint, we also need to lead the way when it comes to making our facilities and supply chains more resilient to a changing climate.”
At the summit, Stanton highlighted the Complex Commercial SATCOM Solutions (CS3) vehicle, which requires contractors to develop a climate risk management plan to mitigate risks to land-based equipment and services.
Electronic Devices and Hardware
The electronics industry is a “big hitter” in global carbon emissions, and it encompasses a vast array of products, according to Cate Berard, team lead for sustainability at the Department of Energy (DOE).
“Within that sector, there's a variety of products and services that all contribute to that climate change impact,” she said at the summit. “From data centers to the hardware that we're using in our computers and our smartphones.”
There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to buying green in the hardware industry, including energy efficiency during use. GSA's mandatory electronic product environmental assessment tool (EPEAT) provides standard configurations and minimum requirements for desktops, laptops, tablets and client devices that are made available for government procurement.
Some environmentally conscious consumers also take into account the product's materials and production process.
"A lot of that carbon impact is embedded in the production of the product, so we need to focus on the types of products that we're buying and how they're made,” Berard said.
Ben Levin, senior manager for technology assessment and resource development at the Global Electronics Council, said that “green IT” standards have become more holistic over the past decade.
“We're talking about renewable energy used throughout the supply chain; we're talking about product design for energy efficiency, repairability, longevity; we're talking about minimizing or eliminating toxic chemicals and substances at every phase of production in the product itself,” he said at the summit. “And we're talking about ensuring the health and safety of the workers in the supply chain, and that their labor rights are protected.”
The data center optimization initiative is a part of the shift from the government- to industry-owned data centers. It requires agencies to close, consolidate and optimize data centers for improved energy use.
“A greater reliance on this industry-provided infrastructure through cloud and other 'as-a-service' solutions inherently consolidates and shrinks the overall footprint of those government data centers, and reduces the government’s consumption of raw materials and energy," Stanton said.
Data centers account for about 2% of U.S. electricity use, according to DOE. They also consume massive amounts of water to keep the servers cool.
“Our concerns with regard to climate change impacts really revolve around how much energy and water those products consume during use,” Berard said.
However, more energy-efficient servers are entering the market.
On average, an EPA ENERGY STAR-rated server will save 30% more energy compared to non-certified servers, according to Ryan Fogle, EPA ENERGY STAR data center product development and marketing manager. This equates to roughly 650 kilowatt-hours per year.
According to Fogle, these servers can also produce more work with less hardware, creating opportunities for users to downsize and spend less in other areas like licensing and software fees. And because there’s no real price premium between servers, data centers can see immediate savings.
Levin said that these days, green IT products often come with major savings.
“We used to talk about things like the ‘green premium’ to explain what's now a myth — that products that were more sustainable came with tradeoffs of higher cost or lower performance,” Levin said. “In no small part because of the leadership that the government has demonstrated in the sustainable purchasing space, industry has advanced and this whole notion is really obsolete.”
GSA is also looking to increase renewable energy use for powering data centers. The cloud-focused Ascend Blanket Purchasing Agreement (BPA) outlines standards for security, data ownership and common terms and conditions — as well as some climate goals.
“We’re in the early stages, through this BPA, of writing the environmental directives related to carbon-pollution-free energy for data centers, and will provide those cloud capabilities,” Stanton said. “So we’re looking at geothermal, hydroelectric, hydrokinetic, nuclear, solar, wind and the like, as [well as] looking at how do get to carbon-pollution-free energy in the data centers provided through this vehicle.”
This past January, every agency was awarded "A" grade in the data center optimization category under the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) scorecard. The Office of Management and Budget and other agencies have closed several thousand data centers and saved approximately $4 billion from fiscal years 2016 to 2021, according to the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Sustainable Acquisition Resources
The EPA, GSA and DOE have created tools and guidance to help agencies procure more sustainable IT, including the Sustainable Facilities tool, tools in the GSA Advantage catalog, and tools in the GSA Acquisition Gateway. ENERGY STAR also publishes examples of sustainable procurement language on its website for agencies to reference.
Looking ahead, in April GSA announced its plans to create a new GSA Acquisition Policy Federal Advisory Committee (GAP FAC) focused on sustainable procurement. The advisory committee will include representatives from both the public and private sectors.
“We have a responsibility as the world’s largest buyer to solicit ideas from top experts in both the public and private sector about how we approach acquisition, particularly in regards to priorities like advancing sustainability and tackling climate change,” Carnahan said in a press release. “I look forward to seeing how this committee can help uncover new strategies and approaches to help us buy cleaner.”
The GAP FAC’s initial focus will be to drive regulatory, policy, and process changes to embed climate and sustainability considerations in federal acquisition.