Despite the flurry of deals signed by cities and even non-profits with the likes of IBM and Cisco (which announced a new pilot project  around Akron, Ohio this week), the biggest score in the smarter sweepstakes is a government agency you’ve likely never heard of, the General Services Administration , and its real estate arm, the Public Buildings Service. The PBS is the federal government’s landlord and superintendent, charging rent, making repairs, and otherwise doing the utmost to cover its $8.6 billion annual budget and return a profit to Congress. It’s also been charged with going green in a big way -- meaning it will have to retrofit and smarten up its aging buildings.
It won’t be cheap.
The PBS owns or leases 9,600 buildings across all 50 states, totaling enough square footage to fill every office building in Manhattan below Central Park. At the Realcomm  “connected real estate” conference in Las Vegas last month, PBS officials were the belles of the ball, courted ardently by tech heavyweights and niche players alike as a potential gusher of contracts. They announced the PBS would become a “green proving ground” for smarter buildings, using its clout and its cash to make the technology companies play nice and create interoperable standards. They hoped to kick broad adoption into high gear. “This isn’t just the flavor of the month; this isn’t just a pilot,” GSA assistant commissioner Larry Melton told me afterwards. “This is the future of facilities, really. We have the ability to change the platform.”
He doesn’t have much choice. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, coupled with Executive Orders issued by President Obama, dictate the GSA cut its energy use by 30% (compared to 2003 levels) by 2015. The agency has responded by targeting the 200 worst offenders for total overhauls -- buildings like the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building in Portland, Oregon, which is scheduled to undergo a $133 million retrofit that will essentially rebuild it from the inside out. The new enhancements include a fiber backbone for the entire building, and networked smart meters, HVAC, and lighting controls.
“But to hit that 30% target, we need to change behavior, too,” said Frank Santella, the agency’s director of smart buildings. In an experiment that would make Cass Sunstein  proud, the PBS is working with designers at IDEO and researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to install a giant screen in the lobby of the San Francisco Federal Building displaying its real-time levels of energy use. The assumption is that if you give people the information, they’ll take steps to rein in their consumption. “We want to see if we can change the behavior of people,” Santella said. Down the road, he hopes to stick a widget on employees’ screens depicting their personal usage. “We want to bring this down to human scale.”
In addition to the 200 buildings slated for gut renovation, by the end of the year another 50 will be identified for outfitting with simpler measures such smart meters and stand-alone applications. But the long-term vision is to link all 9,600 buildings on a single network, with regional command centers controlling energy output and a national one “spotting trends and opportunities and writing policies around them,” as Melton put it. It would be the prototype for the nation-wide smart grid touted by everyone from GE to IBM to Google -- although the agency isn’t about to hand over the keys to just one. “We’re trying to test as many different technologies as possible,” Melton said. “Our strategy isn’t to buy one, walk away and let it run. Others have done that, and let’s just say they didn’t work so well. Initially, a lot of companies were surprised by this, but considering we have an inventory of 360 million square feet, we have the ability to be leading customers.”
In practice, this means being able to dictate the terms: open protocols; nothing proprietary; seamless interoperability, and shared data. “We’re looking for the total solution, not just someone to sell us the middleware boxes, but also the analytics and the engineering,” said Santella, all of which means no one can go it alone. The result is that practical partnerships are starting to form, rather than everyone touting their own technology as the only one you’ll ever need.
“We know the technology is changing, and we’re making the case for change,” said Melton. “A lot of people think we’re this big bureaucratic arm, but we’re really no different than the private sector other than the fact we work for the government. We knew we had to be a leader in this -- we feel like we’re making the market.”