It’s hardly news that the largest single consumer of energy in the United States is the federal government, with its stock of 360,000 buildings and 650,000 fleet vehicles. What is surprising, though, is the extent to which that consumption has implications that are both environmental and economic, not just in terms of dollars spent but also in terms of habitat loss, melting ice caps and rising sea levels.

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Solar panels installed atop Department of Energy’s Forrestal Building headquarters in Washington, D.C.

While President Barack Obama’s Executive Order (“Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade“) issued on March 19 isn’t exactly a game-changer, it draws attention to all those matters. Building on several earlier Executive Orders, it orders federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over a 2008 baseline and to increase their use of energy from renewable sources such as solar and wind-generated electricity by 30 percent. Other provisions include the reduction of water usage, greater energy efficiencies and the reduction of energy usage overall, to be achieved by means large and small, whether by cutting down on photocopying or by installing biomass furnaces. These improvements, overall, are expected to cut energy spending by $18 billion over the next decade.

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The government’s direct contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is small: By most reckonings, it stands at less than 1 percent. Even so, given the government’s role as a driver, not just by virtue of the $445 billion it spends annually on goods and services but also because of the regulations it can enact across the economy, the Order is already having cascading effects. IBM, Northrop Grumman and General Electric, among other companies, have announced emissions-curbing plans of their own.

Of particular interest are the provisions in the Order relating to building performance and energy. It requires that new federal buildings greater than 5,000 square feet be net zero energy, generating as much energy as they consume, by 2020 — a requirement emblematized by the recent addition of solar panels to the roof of the U.S. Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, D.C. Additionally, it mandates that all new agency lease solicitations of buildings of more than 10,000 rentable square feet include criteria for energy efficiency, with the implication that buildings that do not meet the revised standards will not be eligible for lease.

These standards, now under the rubric “Guiding Principles for Federal Leadership in High Performance and Sustainable Buildings,” are to be developed, according to the terms of the Executive Order, by the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and Budget. The guiding principles are supposed to be promulgated within 150 days of the order’s issuance—by midsummer, that is. We’ll be on the lookout for specifics in the months to come.

Kurt Stout is the national leader of Colliers International’s Government Solutions practice group, which provides government real estate services to private investors and federal agencies. He also writes about federal real estate on his Capitol Markets team blog. You can contact Kurt by email or on Twitter.