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PSA: Doing Her Part by Being Energy Smart

Another in Understanding Government’s “Public Service Announcement” series profiling the careers and challenges of notable government employees

By Norman Kelley

Quick! What agency of the federal government, other than the Defense Dept., has over 200,000 vehicles and is a major consumer of energy resources? Still don’t have a clue? Hint: it helped you enjoy your holiday by delivering cards and gifts during the past few weeks, and has been considered the most trusted government agency in an age of anti-government suspicion.

Yes, it is the United States Postal Service (USPS), one of the earliest public agencies established by the government, and one of the very few to be explicitly authorized by the U.S. Constitution. Unlike most government agencies, it does not derive its budget from taxation and has been financially self-sufficient since the 1970s, when it was reorganized from the Post Office Department, a cabinet-level agency, into the United States Postal service, one of the sixty-five independent agencies or corporations and the only agency to survive solely on its own revenues.

With 656,000 workers, the USPS is the second-largest U.S. civilian employer after Wal-Mart. It has a large fleet of vehicles – over 200,000 – consuming an estimated fuel budget of $2.4 billion.

Carolyn Cole

Carolyn Cole

An agency with this much property faces heavy costs for energy.  Helping to make sure that the USPS reduces its energy consumption, along with its carbon footprint, is Carolyn C. Cole, manager of the Postal Service’s Energy Initiatives group. A Washingtonian born and bred, Cole, who reports to Sam Pulcrano, the USPS’s vice president for sustainability, defines her job as “validating and quantifying” her agency’s energy consumption.

“You can’t measure what you can’t manage,” she told Understanding Government. “I develop strategies to reduce our energy consumption.”

An agency that pays its own way must pay special attention to energy costs (something that even the Department of Energy doesn’t always take care of).  With an information technology background, Cole, a certified project manager, has worked to build a utility management system that quantifies energy consumption in all of the Postal Service’s 34,000 buildings across the country. The utility management system helps USPS to pay its bills for each facility by tracking what each building, large or small, is consuming energy-wise and how is being spent on it.

“We created a centralized bill payment system where all the bills went to one location and we were able to see our consumption.” Cole said.

As far as practical ways to cut energy costs, Cole spoke about the “green teams” strategy developed at USPS headquarters.  Composed of USPS staffers from across the organization, the green teams developed a program focusing on five areas: reducing energy use, reducing petroleum use, using recycling to achieve zero waste, reducing our water use, and consumables.”

“Because we are a large organization we wanted to be a leader in making sure we are not harming our environment. So the Postal Service has a commitment to looking at ways to reduce our consumption and reduce the greenhouse gases we emit.” (The USPS’s green agenda and 2008 Sustainability Report are available here.)

One of the ways that the Postal Service may be reducing greenhouse gases in the future is through an experimental project called “V2G,” or vehicle-to-grid technology. Still in its earliest development, Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-NY) has introduced a bill that would give  $2 billion dollars to the Energy Department and the Postal Service to convert postal trucks or manufacture new ones that will use vehicle-to-grid-technology, or “V2G, ” as it’s called in some quarters.

Put simply, US mail trucks would become electric trucks: the V2G program would allow its vehicles to hook up to power lines, feeding them excess electricity when not in use, and, vice versa, become temporary storage units for electricity, allowing power grids to retrieve electricity from them.

As well as having a vast fleet of vehicles, the Postal Service also has numerous buildings, its postal facilities. “Because we have so many buildings,” said Cole, adding to the list of potential innovations, “we can put technologies on our roofs, such as a solar panel. We can be buying back the energy from the grid, but we can also be generating it by partnering with a utility company.” (As well as installing solar panels, the Post Office –the Post Office, mind you – is so eco-friendly that it even has a green garden on a Manhattan postal facility rooftop. Don’t laugh: this agency has won 40 White House Closing the Circle Awards since the program’s inception in 1995.)

Keeping in step with the present administration’s green agenda, the USPS has recently signed on with the International Post Corporation (IPC), an association of 24 member postal services in Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific region, to set a global target of collectively reducing carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, based on 2008 levels.

USPS NYC Roof Garden

Despite the setback that occurred at the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Cole still believes that the IPC’s agenda, which the USPS has agreed to, is achievable. “I can see from the Postal Service, and our commitment, what we have been able to achieve over the last year or two, and I think we are going in the right direction.”

A graduate of D.C.’s storied Dunbar Sr. High School, Cole received her B.S. degree from Syracuse University and her Master of Science in Applied Management from the University of Maryland. She’s been at the Postal Service for seven years, having previously worked at Lockheed Martin on Computing Services under a contract as a Sr. Management Team member at EPA.

What brought to her public service, via the USPS, was the post office’s community “brand.”

“The Postal Service is in every community, and it’s always been a trusted brand, and when I had the opportunity to come to the Postal Service, I just thought I could make a difference,” said Cole.

Comparing her private sector experience to the public sector, Coles cites the demanding speed of contracting work as having a distinctive drawback – not seeing the consequences of one’s work: “As a contractor, you’re always trying to get it done, get it done, get it done fast. But you don’t always see the impact that you’re making.”

Using the 2007 Energy Independence Security Act (EISA) as a guideline, Cole and her colleagues in USPS’s energy and environmental departments, can chart if they are, indeed, making a difference that’s required by law. The Act requires by 2015 that energy consumption be reduced 30%, with 2003 as its base year; petroleum fuel use is to be reduced by 20% by 2015.

Cole admits that the steps are “incremental,” but “we’re taking steps every day and every year to make sure we reach that goal.”

Cole has boiled down her public service philosophy to a tight adage worthy of her time at USPS (if not Jesse Jackson), “Do your part and be energy smart.”

“The key to our energy conservation program has been education,” she said.  “When people [at USPS] really understand how things impact and how they can make a difference, they are more than happy to do it, and these are simply things that can be done at home. And when they start to see the bottom line changes at home, they are more apt to replicate that behavior here at work.”

USPS’s educational outreach encompasses newsletters, community activities, and videos sent to its 34,000 facilities. “We have a ‘Green Track’ program in which our vice president [addresses] strategy as it relates to our vehicles, our buildings, recycling and zero waste,” said Cole.

With other energy smart advocates in government, Cole participates in an “energy conversation” in which she and her counterparts from other government departments gather and brainstorm about what’s working and what’s not in promoting a smart energy agenda to the energy-resource consuming public.

A self-described “life-long learner,” bubbling with enthusiasm, Carolyn Cole looks forward to each new day, each new legislative act or initiative. She finds her work interesting and engaging, with nary a mundane or boring task to distract her from “making a difference.” As a mother of three, Cole has a different set of long-term goals: “I want to make sure that they have something when they are adults, that we haven’t been wasteful. A happy person is one that is serving others.”

One Response to “PSA: Doing Her Part by Being Energy Smart”

  1. Gloria:

    Ms Cole is a positive role model for those who are developing their careers.

    comment at 02. March 2010

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