Lately, there has been no small amount of rhetoric in the nation’s capital about the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable power. To be sure, the federal government is backing up its words with tangible steps.

The Department of Energy (DOE) recently announced a contract with a private firm to construct one of the largest biomass facilities in the country. The project will be located in South Carolina at the DOE-owned-and-operated industrial facility known as the Savannah River Site (SRS). The SRS is dedicated to environmental management and cleanup, nuclear weapons stockpile stewardship, and nuclear materials disposition. The site also develops and deploys technologies to support environmental cleanup and energy independence.

Along those lines, the $795 million biomass project will replace a deteriorating, inefficient, coal powerhouse and oil-fired boilers. According to the DOE, the replacement technology will deliver a savings to the department of approximately $34 million a year in energy and operation and maintenance costs, and it will reduce air emissions, including 100,000 tons per year of greenhouse gas emissions.

A key component of the project is an Energy Savings Performance Contract (ESPC) the DOE has signed with the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Ameresco Federal Solutions Inc. to construct and maintain the biomass facility. ESPCs are contracts in which private companies finance, install and maintain new energy- and water-efficient equipment in federal facilities. The government pays no up-front cost, saving taxpayer dollars, and the company’s investment is repaid over time by the agency from the cost savings generated by the new equipment. This allows the government to use the private sector to purchase more energy-efficient systems and improve the energy performance of their facilities at no extra cost to the agency or taxpayers.

Ameresco will construct a steam cogeneration plant and install two steam boilers and will be reimbursed from actual cost savings generated during the 15-year debt service payback period. The energy savings will result from replacement of the site’s inefficient D Area Powerhouse with a high-tech biomass facility, fuel switching—coal to biomass—and improved operational efficiencies with new equipment better matched to SRS’s load requirements. The effort will create 200–250 construction jobs and employ a staff of 20 people to operate the facility.

Construction of the cogeneration facility is anticipated to start in August 2009 and be operational by December 2011.