Leaders at many US government agencies are looking to improve their energy efficiency as a way to deal with future energy needs and cut costs, but some are worried about having the budget needed to do the job, according to a new survey, released Tuesday.

But agencies may also be looking too much to new technology to fix their energy consumption needs, when they can take a number of steps to reduce energy use, said officials with Schneider Electric, a vendor of energy management services that cosponsored the survey.

Seventy-nine percent of US agency decision-makers said they saw improved energy efficiency as an important way to reduce energy costs and cut greenhouse gas emissions, according to the survey, by Zogby International on behalf of the Alliance to Save Energy and Schneider Electric.

The agencies' focus on energy efficiency is welcome and surprising, given that much of the recent debate on energy in the US has focused on alternative energy sources, not on reducing current energy use, said Ellen Kotzbauer, federal segment manager at Schneider Electric.

Sixty-five percent of survey respondents said their agencies have a culture that encourages energy efficiency. But 64 percent of the 2010 survey respondents said they were concerned that continuing worries about the US economy and potential budget cuts may hurt their energy efficiency efforts. Thirty-two percent said a lack of funding is the biggest obstacle to achieving their agency's federally mandated energy efficiency goals.

President Barack Obama's administration has focused on energy efficiency, particularly in IT systems, as a way to save money for the federal government, the largest energy user in the US In June, Obama signed a memorandum ordering agencies to consolidate data centres and sell off unneeded buildings.

In October 2009, Obama also ordered agencies to set greenhouse gas reduction goals. In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, which required agencies to reduce energy use by 3 percent a year.

The emphasis on data centres is important, because they are so energy intensive, said Jim Plourde, national business deployment manager for Schneider Electric. "You get a lot of bang for your buck in addressing that space," he said.

But many decision-makers at U.S. agencies may be too dependent on new technology to improve energy efficiency, when many of the things that agencies can do don't involve technology, Plourde said.

Asked what tools or efforts are most important for improving energy efficiency, 29 percent said intelligent technologies that control electric devices, and 17 percent said low-consumption devices such as lighting or motors. Just 17 percent said changing human behaviours was most important, according to the survey.

Changes in human behaviour can have a large impact while costing little, Kotzbauer said. In many cases, agencies have tools in place, but employees override them, she said. Employees can manually set the temperature on a thermostat, then forget to turn the automatic controls back on for months, or at one national laboratory, managers disabled the energy-saving controls on fans designed to vent fumes from lab areas out of concern for employee safety, Schneider officials said.

"Technology often times isn't the answer," Plourde said. "It's a component of the answer, but it's often times a misapplied solution."

Ploude compared an agency's energy consumption to a common problem in US households. "If you have a cash flow problem in your house, going out and buying Microsoft Money and loading it on your PC isn't going to solve the problem," he said. "It's a tool you can use to help you solve the problem."

About 53 percent of the survey's respondents said their agencies have metered or audited most or all of their facilities to understand the energy consumption trends. Thirty-eight percent of those responding said improving energy efficiency was among their top five priorities, and 36 percent said it was a second-tier priority.