Energy Savings Performance Contracts:

Additional Actions Needed to Improve Federal Oversight

GAO-15-432: Published: Jun 17, 2015. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The seven selected agencies in GAO's review awarded approximately $12.1 billion in energy savings performance contracts (ESPC) in fiscal years 1995 through 2014 and plan to continue using them to help meet federal energy directives and initiatives. Under ESPCs, private contractors finance the up-front costs of energy improvements. Agencies then repay contractors from the savings, such as those resulting from lower utility bills. The seven agencies GAO reviewed have used more than 500 ESPCs for projects, such as installing energy-efficient lighting or power generation projects. Agencies' plans to use ESPCs vary, particularly for data center consolidation projects, which could reduce a significant amount of energy.

Cost and energy savings that contractors reported to agencies for most ESPCs met or exceeded expectations, but some of these savings may be overstated. GAO's review of a nongeneralizable sample of 20 projects found that contractors' reports overstated cost and energy savings for 14 projects. Contractors calculate and report savings annually in accordance with plans agreed to in their contracts with agencies. These plans include assumptions about agencies' use of equipment, which may change over the life of the contract. If changes reduce project savings, such as when an agency does not operate or maintain the equipment as agreed, contractors are not required to reduce the amount of savings they report or measure the changes' effects. GAO evaluated the extent to which changes in agency operations or other factors within agencies' control may have reduced energy savings for a nongeneralizable sample of projects. Estimates agencies provided to GAO of savings that were reported but not achieved ranged from negligible to nearly half of a project's reported annual savings. For example, one agency removed equipment for a sewer system upgrade, which resulted in over $104,000 in annual savings that were reported but not achieved, or about 40 percent of the project's reported savings. Federal guidance states that when reviewing contractor reports, agencies should understand changes in project performance and savings levels, and what actions should be taken to address deficiencies. However, agencies were not always aware of how much savings were not achieved due to agency actions because contractors were not required to report this information. Without clearer reporting of savings that are not achieved, agencies may be unable to determine what, if any, corrective actions should be taken.

The seven agencies in GAO's review have conducted limited oversight and evaluation of their ESPC projects. In GAO's sample of 20 projects, agency representatives did not perform some oversight activities included in guidance because they were unaware of these duties or how to perform them, among other reasons. Without ensuring that training provides officials with the information needed to understand how to perform their oversight responsibilities, agencies may continue to inconsistently perform oversight. Moreover, most of the agencies in GAO's review have not systematically evaluated their ESPC portfolios to determine the effects of changing circumstances—such as facility use—on project performance because they do not have processes to do so. Without such oversight and evaluation, agency officials cannot make fully informed decisions about how best to strategically manage their ESPCs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Constrained budgets and increasing energy efficiency goals have led federal agencies to explore innovative ways to fund energy improvements, including ESPCs. An expected increase in the use of ESPCs has raised questions about agencies' ability to ensure that the government's interests are protected. ESPCs can span up to 25 years and be valued at millions of dollars each.

GAO was asked to review federal use of ESPCs since 2005. This report examines the extent to which (1) agencies have used ESPCs and plan to use them; (2) projects have achieved their expected cost and energy savings; and (3) agencies have overseen and evaluated such projects. GAO compiled data on awarded ESPCs; reviewed agency guidance and files for a nongeneralizable sample of 20 ESPC projects that reflected a range of contract award dates, contract values, and other characteristics; and interviewed officials from the seven agencies with the highest energy usage and greatest facility square footage—the Air Force, Army, and Navy within the Department of Defense; the Departments of Energy, Justice, and Veterans Affairs; and the General Services Administration.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making recommendations to improve oversight of ESPC projects through clearer reporting of savings, improved training, and systematic evaluations of portfolios, among other things. In general, the agencies partially concurred with GAO's recommendations. GAO has modified the report, as appropriate, to address the agencies' comments.

For more information, contact Frank Rusco at (202) 512-3841 or ruscof@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2016, we were working with DOE officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help agencies more consistently perform their oversight responsibilities and oversee contractors' measurement and verification activities, the Secretary of Energy should direct FEMP to monitor agencies' oversight of ESPC projects that agencies have awarded using the DOE contract vehicle, including whether agencies witnessed the contractors' measurement and verification activities and reviewed and certified acceptance of the measurement and verification report.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with DOD officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on the effects of changing circumstances on the performance of their ESPC portfolios, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should establish a process to systematically evaluate their ESPC projects--including baseline assumptions about facilities' energy use, utility prices, and interest rates--to determine how their ESPC portfolios are performing and the extent to which they are achieving expected savings. Agencies could consider conducting such evaluations either after a certain number of years, or in response to events, such as changes in utility prices or market interest rates, or appropriations becoming available that could be used for modifications or terminations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2016, we were working with DOE officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on the effects of changing circumstances on the performance of their ESPC portfolios, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should establish a process to systematically evaluate their ESPC projects--including baseline assumptions about facilities' energy use, utility prices, and interest rates--to determine how their ESPC portfolios are performing and the extent to which they are achieving expected savings. Agencies could consider conducting such evaluations either after a certain number of years, or in response to events, such as changes in utility prices or market interest rates, or appropriations becoming available that could be used for modifications or terminations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, the Department of Justice agreed with the recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with Department of Justice officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on the effects of changing circumstances on the performance of their ESPC portfolios, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should establish a process to systematically evaluate their ESPC projects--including baseline assumptions about facilities' energy use, utility prices, and interest rates--to determine how their ESPC portfolios are performing and the extent to which they are achieving expected savings. Agencies could consider conducting such evaluations either after a certain number of years, or in response to events, such as changes in utility prices or market interest rates, or appropriations becoming available that could be used for modifications or terminations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, the Department of Veterans Affairs agreed with the recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with Department of Veterans Affairs officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on the effects of changing circumstances on the performance of their ESPC portfolios, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should establish a process to systematically evaluate their ESPC projects--including baseline assumptions about facilities' energy use, utility prices, and interest rates--to determine how their ESPC portfolios are performing and the extent to which they are achieving expected savings. Agencies could consider conducting such evaluations either after a certain number of years, or in response to events, such as changes in utility prices or market interest rates, or appropriations becoming available that could be used for modifications or terminations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, GSA agreed with the recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with GSA officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on the effects of changing circumstances on the performance of their ESPC portfolios, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should establish a process to systematically evaluate their ESPC projects--including baseline assumptions about facilities' energy use, utility prices, and interest rates--to determine how their ESPC portfolios are performing and the extent to which they are achieving expected savings. Agencies could consider conducting such evaluations either after a certain number of years, or in response to events, such as changes in utility prices or market interest rates, or appropriations becoming available that could be used for modifications or terminations.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: OMB did not comment on its plans to implement this recommendation in its review of a draft of the report and, as of December 2016, had not provided us with requested information on its actions to implement this recommendation. We will continue to follow-up on the status of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help agencies decide whether to use ESPCs to consolidate federal data centers, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget should document, for the purposes of scoring ESPCs, (1) what qualifies as energy-related savings and (2) the allowable proportion of energy and energy-related cost savings.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Office of Management and Budget

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2016, we were working with DOE officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help agencies more consistently perform their oversight responsibilities and oversee contractors' measurement and verification activities, the Secretary of Energy should direct DOE's Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) to evaluate existing training and determine whether additional training is needed on observing contractors' measurement and verification activities and reviewing and certifying measurement and verification reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  9. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with DOD officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on ESPC performance to oversee whether future and current contracts are achieving their expected savings, the Secretaries of Defense and Energy should specify in the scheduled revisions to their ESPC contract vehicles or in guidance to agencies that measurement and verification reports for future projects are to include estimates of cost and energy savings that were not achieved because of agency actions. Additionally, the Department of Energy (DOE) may wish to consider periodically analyzing data on other factors that may affect savings, such as utility prices, to provide information on how savings achieved by ESPCs awarded through its contract vehicle have been affected by changing utility prices since its prior study in 2007.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  10. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2016, we were working with DOE officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on ESPC performance to oversee whether future and current contracts are achieving their expected savings, the Secretaries of Defense and Energy should specify in the scheduled revisions to their ESPC contract vehicles or in guidance to agencies that measurement and verification reports for future projects are to include estimates of cost and energy savings that were not achieved because of agency actions. Additionally, the Department of Energy (DOE) may wish to consider periodically analyzing data on other factors that may affect savings, such as utility prices, to provide information on how savings achieved by ESPCs awarded through its contract vehicle have been affected by changing utility prices since its prior study in 2007.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  11. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, DOD concurred with this recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with DOD officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on ESPC performance to oversee whether future and current contracts are achieving their expected savings, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should work with contractors to determine the best way to obtain estimates of cost and energy savings that are not achieved because of agency actions in order to include these estimates in future measurement and verification reports for existing contracts, in accordance with DOE guidance, and where economically feasible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  12. Status: Open

    Comments: As of December 2016, we were working with DOE officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on ESPC performance to oversee whether future and current contracts are achieving their expected savings, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should work with contractors to determine the best way to obtain estimates of cost and energy savings that are not achieved because of agency actions in order to include these estimates in future measurement and verification reports for existing contracts, in accordance with DOE guidance, and where economically feasible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  13. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, the Department of Justice agreed with the recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with Department of Justice officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on ESPC performance to oversee whether future and current contracts are achieving their expected savings, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should work with contractors to determine the best way to obtain estimates of cost and energy savings that are not achieved because of agency actions in order to include these estimates in future measurement and verification reports for existing contracts, in accordance with DOE guidance, and where economically feasible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice

  14. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, the Department of Veterans Affairs did not agree with the recommendation, but suggested changes, which we incorporated. As of December 2016, we were working with Department of Veterans Affairs officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on ESPC performance to oversee whether future and current contracts are achieving their expected savings, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should work with contractors to determine the best way to obtain estimates of cost and energy savings that are not achieved because of agency actions in order to include these estimates in future measurement and verification reports for existing contracts, in accordance with DOE guidance, and where economically feasible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  15. Status: Open

    Comments: In comments on a draft of this report, GSA agreed with the recommendation. As of December 2016, we were working with GSA officials to confirm the status of their actions to implement the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that agencies have sufficient information on ESPC performance to oversee whether future and current contracts are achieving their expected savings, the Secretaries of Defense, Energy, and Veterans Affairs; the Attorney General; and the Administrator of the General Services Administration should work with contractors to determine the best way to obtain estimates of cost and energy savings that are not achieved because of agency actions in order to include these estimates in future measurement and verification reports for existing contracts, in accordance with DOE guidance, and where economically feasible.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

 

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