U.S. military’s civilian overseas employees use more energy than locals
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — The U.S. military has been promoting new energy-saving initiatives, but Army employees in Germany say the government has ignored years of recommendations that overseas personnel become more financially responsible for their own household energy use.
American homes and barracks can be kept comfortably warm year-round because soldiers living on-post get free electricity and heat, while civilians living off post are reimbursed for rent and utility costs through the overseas living quarters allowance.
Figures show that Americans can pay up to 200 percent more for utilities than the average German family.
An average German four-person family spends from 1,260 to 2,460 euros a year in electricity and heating costs, depending on the age and energy efficiency of their home, according to Johanna Baumann, a representative for Germany electricity company E-ON. By comparison, the Army paid out 18 million euros to meet the utility costs of 4,654 employees collecting living quarters allowance in Europe — an average of 3,868 euros per household, according to U.S. Army Europe figures.
And while recent Earth Day events at posts all over Europe showcased a raft of environmental programs, from recycling to a utility energy monitoring-and-control system at Grafenwöhr that saves the Army $3 million in energy costs each year, there is no financial incentive for civilians to trim their energy costs, Army employees working in Grafenwöhr said.
U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr energy manager Aref Arianta is part of a group of Army officials who think Defense Department civilians should receive a lump sum for their utility costs. If they go over that amount, it comes out of their own pocket. If they can stay under that amount, they get to keep the difference.
That’s how it works for U.S. troops who live off base in Europe.
Arianta said officials bring up the issue of lump-sum payments each August at the GovEnergy workshop, which brings together 3,000 to 4,000 officials, about half of them from the military and the rest from other U.S. government departments, to talk about energy-saving ideas.
But so far the pleas have fallen on deaf ears, he said.
"It’s not just a local issue. It is an Army-wide issue," he said.
But lump-sum payments aren’t a viable option for civilians, according to U.S. Army Europe public affairs officer Maj. Valerie Henderson.
Living Quarters Allowance payments are already capped, and people who exceed their maximum rate incur out-of-pocket expenses.
"Going to a lump-sum payment for utilities under the LQA with the intent that employees could pocket any savings is inappropriate, as the employee is not authorized to be reimbursed for costs not incurred," she said. "Anything contrary to this would be tantamount to obtaining public funds surreptitiously, which is unlawful."
That’s why people such as Rob Lee, an information technology manager in Grafenwöhr, doesn’t worry about his utility bills.
Lee said he estimates his energy bill in advance. If he were to conserve energy, then he would have to pay back some of his LQA to the government at the end of each year, he said.
"What advantage is it to me to shut everything off because I’m going to end up owing money," he asked.
Americans’ heavy household energy use goes against efforts by U.S. Army in Europe to reduce its environmental impact. In recent years, the Army has experimented with energy-efficient houses and electric vehicles in Bavaria.
And the base’s utility energy monitoring-and-control system allows Helmut Bueller, a Grafenwöhr Directorate of Public Works Utilities Operation and Maintenance Division specialist, to reduce heat in on-post offices at night or whenever needed.
However, the U.S. government could save even more if it gave personnel a financial incentive to save power, Bueller said.
The fact that most personnel stationed in Europe do not have a financial incentive to save energy means officials are reduced to asking people to switch off lights and turn down the heat out a sense of moral obligation.
"Whatever money people can save on energy can be used for other beneficial services within the garrison," energy manager Arianta said.
For now, officials are left to work on changing the culture of Americans stationed overseas when it comes to energy use, he said.
"We have to change the culture in terms of how we clothe ourselves, how we ventilate our houses: Open the windows three to five minutes and then close them," he said. "Don’t keep them open longer. Take a shower instead of a bath. Use cooler water."