Project Management and the Federal Sustainable Energy Initiative

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The Project Management Failings of the Obama Administration’s Sustainable Energy Initiative

Dr. Beverly JN Bowen, PhD

As the global economy continues to suffer the devastating consequences of unchecked growth, in the form of a prolonged recession which has decimated the housing market, private enterprises and public policymakers alike have a vested interest achieving a sustainable form of urban development. Seeking a balance between our society’s collective desire for environmental responsibility and the grim calculus of continually rising human populations has long been the goal of conscientious city planners, but the role of governmental intervention in this process has inspired considerable debate among politicians, social scientists, and real estate developers. With the administration of President Barack Obama encountering resistance and ridicule after a significant investment in clean and renewable energy, a move many detractors view as a billion dollar boondoggle, the issue of government entities actively promoting sustainable urban development has risen to the forefront of the national consciousness. As a byproduct of the administration’s stalled efforts to institute a nationalized sustainable building initiative, the critical importance that competent project management plays in ensuring a project’s ultimate success or failure has also been heightened. A comparative analysis between the administrations ongoing “green” projects, and the tenets of modern project management as taught in this course, will serve to highlight the administration’s varied levels of efficacy in terms of proper planning, risk management, adherence to the critical path method, and other techniques which increase a project’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Should elected officials utilize their political positions to advance the cause of building homes and cities through sustainable means, and does this active involvement on the part of government actually serve to help or hinder the facilitation of sustainable urban development? By conducting a careful review of recent research studies designed to assess how current governmental policies impact on the industry environmentally friendly urban development, it is possible to formulate an informed conclusion regarding the relative value of future policy decisions. One of the oft repeated admonishments voiced by researchers studying the Obama administration’s sustainability initiative is central to a foundational aspect of project management: methodical preparation and planning prior to launch. In the case of Solyndra, “the bankrupt Silicon Valley solar startup that received a $535 million federal loan guarantee” (Woody, 2012), before failing in spectacular fashion, points to a fatal flaw in terms of the overall project management process. The concept of identifying project proposals which are equipped to succeed and thrive, while in turn rejecting those project proposals that do not suggest future growth is to be expected, is the responsible project manager’s first priority. It has been observed by project management experts that “insufficient – or nonexistent – resource investments in a project are another warning sign that you should beware of (because) projects without budgets, people, or equipment are risky from the outset” (Williams, 2008), and the fact that governmental oversight failed to identify Solyndra as a poor investment during the planning phase points to unsophisticated and inexperienced project managers being permitted to make crucial choices.

Private developers have long decried the federal government’s insistence that urban planning techniques be based on environmental factors such as the presence of threatened or endangered species, resulting destruction of fragile ecosystems, and potential infringement on preserved parcels of land. While a seasoned project manager would readily identify these variables as risk factors during the risk management phase, the inability of concerned parties to remain objective often results in these risk factors being willfully ignored in favor of pursuing greater profit margins. Seasoned project managers know firsthand that “when risk management is effective, it results in fewer problems, and for the few problems that exist, it results in more expeditious resolutions” (Schwalbe, 2011), and with many of the sustainable building projects launched during the President’s first term languishing amidst regulatory delays, it is clear that a thorough period of independent risk management was never conducted. Instead, the role of risk management was left to the very real estate conglomerates and corporate developers seeking to relax federal legislation restricting unchecked commercial construction, who often cite their reliance on sophisticated computer modeling programs, ostensibly asserting that objective scientific analysis supports their contention that development will result in minimal impact to the surrounding environment. While these predictive programs may be useful from the perspective of private developers, the governmental agencies tasked with guiding the Obama administration’s sustainable energy initiative should have made a strategic investment in project management to ensure the independence and impartiality of their findings.

In order to emphasize the importance of legitimate risk management during the planning phase of any complex project, it is informative to analyze the empirical studies produced by unaffiliated parties with no vested interest in the project itself. Urban design and planning professor Paul Waddell conducted a study in 2002 designed to assess the efficacy of the most widely used urban planning models, through a rigorous comparison of these models to the UrbanSim model developed by himself and his colleagues. Waddell’s findings, published within an article entitled Modeling Urban Development for Land Use, Transportation and Environmental Planning, take governmental recognition of “the effects of transportation on land use and the environment” into account, as well as “the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 and the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) which mandated that metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) integrate metropolitan land use and transportation planning” (2002). After comparing the complex set of parameters used to determine the growth planning of many major American cities to the more environmentally mindful parameters of the UrbanSim system, Waddell concluded that governmentally created analytical tools are typically unable to keep pace with those developed by private firms. He attributes this phenomenon to an increasingly hostile political arena which dictates that policy decisions are not made with expediency, asserting in his concluding remarks that “the challenge of balancing multiple objectives and agendas within urban areas in the U.S. And abroad have grown increasingly intractable politically, and this work represents a small effort to contribute to more deliberative and informed metropolitan governance” (Waddell, 2002). The work performed by Waddell and his colleagues demonstrates the relative simplicity of assessing and managing a project’s risk factors, when objectivity is ensured, and this discrepancy suggests a conscious choice on the part of government agencies more interested in fast-tracking preferable projects than vetting them for inherent risks.

While containing the sprawling growth of industrialized metropolitan centers is an important aspect of modern urban planning, the continued investments being made to revitalize underdeveloped areas throughout regions like Southern Asia, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan present a prime opportunity for policymakers to learn from the mistakes of the past. To that end, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme issued a comprehensive report entitled Planning Sustainable Cities: Global Report on Human Settlements 2009 which sought to provide clear guidelines for the sustainable development of emerging population centers around the globe. For the project managers charged with guiding the administration’s sustainable energy initiative, reports such as this represent invaluable resources in the effort to define and control the project’s scope and size. It is widely known among the project management profession that “good scope definition is very important to project success because it helps improve the accuracy of time, cost, and resource estimates, it defines a baseline for performance measurement and project control, and it aids in communicating clear work responsibilities” (Schwalbe, 2011). With the specter of Solyndra and similarly failed enterprises continuing to impede the President’s efforts to reinvigorate his sustainable energy program, it is quite evident that the administration’s project managers failed in their duty to define and control their project’s scope. The UN report consistently advocates a combination of governmentally administered regulations and community-based cooperation with citizens and property owners, and ultimately finds that “recent experience has also demonstrated the effectiveness of combining such a regulatory approach with partnerships between government, industry and communities in the development and implementation of local sustainability innovations and enterprises” (Tibaijuka, 2009). The author of the study, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, states in her concluding remarks that “the central argument in this report is that planning systems in many parts of the world are not up to the task of dealing with the major urban challenges of the 21st century, and need to be revisited” (2009), and according to Tibaijuka this is a process best facilitated by appropriate levels of government intervention.

Rather than rely on a patchwork of municipal statutes, local land use laws, and federal directives, each of which may be contradictory or counterintuitive to one another, the UN report also advises an inclusive network of recognized urban development practices be instituted and adhered to. The fact that “many green innovations can, and should, be comprehensively integrated into statutory urban planning and development control systems, including planning standards and building regulations” (Tibaijuka, 2009), presents public policymakers with several avenues through which sustainability can be efficiently and effectively legislated. The argument presented in the UN report that sustainable growth can actually be implemented through cost-effective means is another indictment of the administration’s project management aptitude. When the unfortunate course of America’s newly launched sustainability project is analyzed from the perspective of project cost management, it becomes readily apparent that a significant portion of the government’s project management team likely consisted of individuals with a background in information technology. It is widely known among the project management community that “many information technology professionals often react casually to cost overrun information (because) they know that many of the original cost estimates for information technology projects are low to begin with or based on very unclear project requirements” (Schwalbe, 2011). The fact that so many of the federal government’s appointed enterprises experienced unexpectedly drastic cost overruns, while project managers failed to respond or react with sufficient urgency to prevent bankruptcies and other failures, points to an institutionalized disregard for this aspect of the project management process.

One aspect of the American system of property law that many experts have proposed as a viable method for standardizing environmentally conscious development is the array of zoning codes governing how land can be utilized. The American Planning Association released a report in 2008 entitled Saving the World Through Zoning, which was authored by land-use attorney Chris Duerksen and a team of researchers working in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute. The research contained within Duerksen’s report focuses on the author’s conception of the Sustainable Community Development Code, which calls on local legislators to “make sure development codes directly address sustainability issues like energy conservation and production — for example, by removing impediments to compact residential wind turbines or requiring subdivisions to be laid out to take advantage of solar power” (2008). According to Duerksen’s study of successfully implemented sustainable building programs, the ability to make effectual adjustments to the intricate network of local zoning codes represents for “local elected officials the most powerful and effective tool to shape and protect their community” (2008). This revelation is especially relevant to the concept of project procurement management, because the administration’s efforts to foster sustainable building practices as a viable domestic agenda were consistently impeded by an inability to procure tracts of land for solar, wind, and other related sustainable energy infrastructure. While Duerksen and his colleagues at the American Planning Association are understandably doubtful of the federal bureaucracy’s willingness to make systemic moves towards sustainable growth, they remain optimistic regarding the response of municipal management structures. As Duerksen states unequivocally, “while the federal government seems to be in denial, mayors and local governments are leading the way in implementing sustainable policies and plans” (2008), and this encouraging development signals an increased willingness on the part of small towns and cities to guide their growth along the path to sustainability. Had the administration’s collection of project managers identified local and municipal zoning codes as a viable procurement method through which sustainable energy projects could be encouraged to thrive, the failure rate experienced by enterprises which received governmental investment would have been significantly reduced.

When the totality of the President’s proposed sustainable energy program, and its associated initiatives which have been launched to varying degrees across America, are considered from a project management perspective, it becomes clear that a series of project management failures ultimately undermined the program’s ability to succeed. First, the project was hastily devised and not properly planned, a mistake which provoked a chain reaction of further shortcomings. Second, a concerted effort towards risk management was never seriously engaged in, leading to embarrassing calamities such as the Solyndra debacle. With an impaired ability to recognize risk factors and react accordingly, the administration repeatedly identified flawed companies as candidates for targeted investment, a tendency which would not be permitted to occur under an experienced project manager’s stewardship. Lastly, those in charge of directing the federal government’s strategic support of sustainable energy enterprises consistently failed to procure support from their ostensible allies in municipal and state government roles. Without the guiding principles of modern project management to protect it from inherent risks, cost overruns, and other dilemmas posed by complex projects, the administration’s well-intentioned efforts to promote sustainable building and energy production proved to be fundamentally flawed.


Campbell, S. (1996). Green cities, growing cities, just cities? Urban planning and the contradictions of sustainable development. Journal of the American Planning Association, 62(3), 296-312. Retrieved from

Duerksen, C. (2008). Saving the world through zoning. Planning: the Magazine of the American Planning Association, Retrieved from the-world-through-zoning.pdf

Ingram, G.K., Carbonell, A., Hong, Y.H., & Flint, A. (2009). Smart growth policies: An evaluation of programs and outcomes. Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Retrieved from

Schwalbe, K. (2011). Information technology project management. (6th ed.). Boston: Course Technology Ptr.

Tibaijuka, A.K. United Nations Human Settlement Program, (2009). Planning sustainable cities: Global report on human settlements 2009. Retrieved from:

Waddell, P. (2002). Modeling urban development for land use, transportation and environmental planning. Journal of the American Planning Association, 68(3), 297-314. Retrieved from / 03021?


Williams, M. (2008). The principles of project management. (1st ed.). Collingwood, Victoria, Australia: SitePoint Pty. Ltd.

Woody, T. (2012, October 12). Solyndra files $1.5 billion antitrust suit against china solar companies. Forbes, Retrieved from suit-against-china-solar-companies/

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