Going Green at the OAS

Tuesday, July 09, 2019


Buildings are energy hogs. And when they date back more than a century, they have an especially voracious appetite for electricity, water, air conditioning, and heat. Mindful of the need both to be green and to save greenbacks, the Organization of American States (OAS) is working to cut energy use at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.—including in its famed House of the Americas.


The landmark building—located just a few blocks from the White House, at the intersection of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street— first opened its doors in 1910 as the home of the Pan American Union, the precursor to the OAS. It has hosted momentous events in the history of the Western Hemisphere, including the 1977 signing of the Panama Canal Treaty.

Inside, the Hall of the Americas retains the grandeur of its era, but with a twist. The crystal chandeliers that have looked down on countless conferences, concerts, and visits by presidents and prime ministers are powered with LED lights. This is just one small example of steps the OAS has already taken to put sustainability into practice.

Now it is stepping up such efforts, increasing its use of renewable energy and putting a premium on efficiency. For an institution that depends on country dues and has long had budgetary struggles, the “driving force” behind these efforts is the need to save money, according to Enrique Bello, acting Director of the Department of General Services (DGS).

“If in the process we do it the green way,” he added, “even better.”

More than 700 staff, contract employees, and interns work at OAS headquarters. The physical plant consists of five buildings: four in the historic main complex (the House of the Americas, a large administrative building, the Museum of the Americas, and a small office building known as the Casita), in addition to the primary office location a few blocks away (the General Secretariat Building).

While the OAS has implemented some incremental changes over the past decade toward sustainability—for example, putting in more efficient sinks and toilets, cutting weekend energy use, and promoting recycling—some of the changes currently in the works are on a larger scale.

That is possible in part because today’s energy market provides creative solutions for financing renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, according to Bello, who worked in the OAS Department of Sustainable Development for more than two decades before starting his current job as DGS Director at the beginning of 2017. In some cases, for example, an energy service company will bear the up-front costs of installation and have clients pay back the costs over time, as a percentage of what they save on energy costs.

At the General Secretariat Building, which opened in 1976, the OAS is preparing to install rooftop solar panels, but first it had to replace the aging roof—a project that had been put off for years for budgetary reasons. As part of an agreement signed with the OAS, a local solar company is covering not only the cost of installing the solar panels but even part of the cost of replacing the roof. (The solar company, for its part, will benefit from local tax credits.)

Work on the roof has been completed, and the installation of the photovoltaic solar panels is expected to begin once pending local permits have been issued. The panels will supply about 10 percent of the building’s electricity needs at no cost to the OAS.

“As long as what we do promotes sustainability and environmental management, and generates savings for the Organization, I think it’s a win-win situation for everybody,” Bello said in an interview.

Here are just a few of the other areas where the Department of General Services of the OAS is working to cut costs and implement greener practices:

  • LED lights. Once it finishes putting in some 12,000 LED lights at headquarters—a process nearly completed in the General Secretariat Building—the OAS expects to save more than $100,000 per year in electricity costs, according to Bello. That investment will pay for itself in less than three years, he added, and will cut total electricity consumption at headquarters by about 10 percent.
  • Renewable energy. Besides installing rooftop panels, the OAS is partnering with the General Services Administration (the agency that manages U.S. government real estate) to acquire additional solar energy from an off-site solar farm—enough to meet about 40 percent of the energy needs for the General Secretariat Building. The OAS also uses some wind power, as the local electric utility company that serves the U.S. capital obtains 15 percent of its energy from wind sources.
  • Electric Vehicle Charging station. The underground parking garage at the General Secretariat Building is now equipped with a Level 3 charging station that will allow most electric vehicles to fully charge in 30 minutes. Two additional stations are planned, as demand increases.
  • Heating and cooling. The steam heat boilers in the older buildings run only three months a year but are extremely expensive to operate. The OAS has had the required engineering studies done to replace the system with highly efficient gas-fired boilers, and it expects to put the project out to bid soon. It is also well along in the process of replacing the induction units that distribute air conditioning throughout the older buildings, upgrading them to more efficient models.
  • Revamped recycling. The OAS is rolling out an effort to significantly increase recycling. The goal is to reduce waste management expenses by 20 percent and nearly double the amount of material diverted to recycling (from the current level of 23 percent of waste material to 52 percent) by the end of this year. Instead of having trash and recycling bins in each office, waste disposal stations will be set up in selected locations on each floor. Switching to a centralized system is expected to reduce the amount of trash dropped into recycling bins by 75 percent. This will not only reduce waste but will also generate important savings, as disposal costs for recycling are lower than for trash. And cleaning staff will no longer need to empty bins in each office, freeing them up for other tasks.
  • Paper consumption. The OAS has been gradually replacing old photocopiers with multifunctional copiers that make it easier to scan documents and bypass print copies altogether. The cost structure for making copies encourages staff to reduce waste and use double-sided printing as much as possible. Still, “we use more paper than we really need,” Bello said. “It’s people’s habits that I think we need to change,” he added, noting that the ability to cut back on paper use and increase recycling depends on the efforts of each individual.

While facilities management is an important element in promoting energy efficiency and environmental sustainability, it is not the only one, Bello noted. These issues should factor into people’s everyday decisions and activities, he added—whether they are ordering supplies, planning meetings, making travel plans, or even getting to work every day.

“We could do much more as individuals and as an institution to reduce our carbon footprint,” Bello said. “It’s a matter of adopting a sustainable mindset.”