For more than 20 years, federal agencies have pursued ambitious goals for energy efficiency through executive orders and mandates. These efforts have reduced energy use, saved costs and provided a driving force for technology advancement, but the efficiency projects themselves did not always enhance the missions of the agencies or strengthen resilience of their critical systems.

Senior leaders now have begun to focus on how energy programs support operational effectiveness, and we are seeing amazing results. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has made stronger energy programs one of his primary objectives in large part because of the direct tie to operational effectiveness. Ships with improved energy efficiency and resilience operate independently for longer periods; command centers ashore are more resilient and remain operational in the wake of a devastating hurricane like Katrina or Sandy.

Senior agency leaders responsible for recapitalizing critical infrastructure are now leveraging energy-savings projects to strengthen the resilience and reliability of their facilities. They are making operational requirements a primary driver in every project. The Navy has embarked on several base-wide Energy Savings Performance Contracts at remote locations like Diego Garcia and Guantanamo Bay to do just that. Projects at these locations combine energy-conservation measures with new distributed renewable generation and energy storage. These improvements are all integrated into a microgrid to ensure attainment of both efficiency and operational objectives.

Thinking shifted following Hurricane Sandy in November 2012, when the Defense Dept. and other federal agencies felt a direct impact from the storm to their operational missions. The Army and Navy expeditionary forces surged support to get vital services back online and help communities recover. This event and other natural disasters and security threats made crystal-clear the need to protect military installations and federal services to ensure continuity of critical missions.

Leaders throughout federal agencies since then have explored the concepts of resilience and energy security. We’re seeing a new focus centered on “mission assurance” emerging as the primary driver for infrastructure recapitalization and energy efficiency.

This approach not only changes the prioritization and focus of energy projects, but also transforms the energy program from a “must-pay” bill to meet the current mandate to one that supports the primary mission of the agencies and their ability to provide services.

For years, performance contracts such as Energy Savings Performance Contracts (ESPC) and Utility Energy Savings Contracts (UESC) made steady progress towards meeting energy efficiency mandates. Frequently a project was judged on its payback and energy savings, and not on the positive impact that comes from infrastructure recapitalization. The U.S. Navy Space and Warfare (SPAWAR) Systems Center, Pacific, took a more holistic approach. SPAWAR and AECOM as the Energy Saving Contractor (ESCO) partner jointly developed a multi-phase ESPC project to replace failing, unreliable infrastructure with a new central cooling plant, high-efficiency magnetic bearing chillers to reduce maintenance, and sufficient capacity to provide assurance that critical systems are mission-ready around the clock. SPAWAR realized far better reliability and dependable support to its warfighting mission, while the 37% energy savings earned the California Energy Efficiency Industry Council’s “Outstanding Project of the Year” award.

Agencies today value emissions reduction and climate resilience and incorporate more operations and maintenance support into their energy performance contracting. Energy savings are maximized and critical energy system reliability is significantly enhanced by including O&M of complex systems into performance contracting. More importantly, engaging an ESCO in the ongoing O&M of critical systems provides agency leaders a better understanding of the capabilities and limitations of their supporting infrastructure.

The energy future is bright because of this shift in focus towards mission assurance. This increase in illumination is no longer driven by the economics of simple LED lighting upgrades, but by a deeper understanding of the connection of resilient, reliable power and supporting infrastructure to maintain the agency’s primary mission.

Project-level decisions will reflect the agencies’ core mission priorities only when senior leaders are engaged in the infrastructure investment decisions, whether using appropriated funding or third-party financing from performance contracting. More executive orders and agency goals are to be expected, but it is the mission-assurance framework with senior leadership engagement that will transform traditional energy programs from good to great.

Mark Handley is senior vice president, national governments for AECOM.