Greening the Hill
A Carbon-Neutral House?
Friday, May 25, 2007
A plan by the House to become carbon-neutral by the end of this Congress calls for dropping coal from the fuel mix burned at the Capitol Power Plant to heat and cool House buildings.
"Carbon-neutral," the environmental buzzword of the climate change generation, means measuring the amount of carbon dioxide generated by a home or business in the course of daily operations and finding ways -- through conservation, recycling or use of renewable energy -- to offset it.
House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard, who was directed in March by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to devise a strategy to make the House side of the Capitol carbon-neutral, said yesterday that burning natural gas at the power plant instead of coal would go a long way toward reducing the House's carbon emissions.
The power plant, four blocks from House office buildings, has burned coal since it opened in 1910 and is the only coal-burning facility in the District. Carbon dioxide from coal burning is a significant greenhouse gas. Attempts over the years to drop coal from the fuel mix at the plant have been stymied by coal-state Sens. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Because the power plant is owned by Congress, the House cannot unilaterally ban coal; it can only control the fuel used to heat and cool its buildings.
Despite its name, the Capitol Power Plant has not produced a watt of electricity since 1952; the Capitol complex buys its power from Pepco. Instead, the plant generates steam and chilled water to heat and cool the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and 19 other structures. Coal accounts for 49 percent of its output; the rest is generated by natural gas and oil.
The daily operation of the House of Representatives, its cafeterias and offices generated 91,000 tons of greenhouse gases in 2006 -- equal to the annual emissions of 17,200 cars.
About two-thirds of that pollution came from electricity the House buys and one-third from the Capitol Power Plant, Beard said.
For the House to go carbon-neutral, Beard is devising a four-point plan. First, and already underway, is an effort to cut electricity use by converting all 12,000 desk lamps in House office buildings to compact fluorescent bulbs and installing dimmers.
Next, the House expects to buy all its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar through an arrangement with Pepco, Beard said. And if the House replaces coal with natural gas at the power plant, it can reduce its annual carbon emissions by 75 percent. To get rid of the remaining 25 percent and become carbon-neutral by 2010, the House could either buy offset credits or invest in conservation projects, Beard said.
One project in which the House may invest is a system under study at the National Zoo that would convert animal waste into fuel, Beard said.
The costs to the House of going carbon-neutral -- buying all electricity from renewable sources, replacing coal with natural gas, investing in offsets -- are still being fine-tuned but will be part of recommendations Beard will deliver to Pelosi by June 30.
But the House is just one part of the equation.
A recent study by the Government Accountability Office found the House accounts for about 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the entire legislative branch. When the Senate and various support agencies are added in, about 316,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions were created in fiscal 2006. That's equivalent to the emissions produced by about 57,455 cars.
Last month, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) filed legislation to require the entire Capitol complex to be carbon-neutral by 2020. He has been particularly concerned about the Capitol Power Plant.
"It's time the Congress starts to walk the walk when it comes to fighting climate change and saving energy," Kerry said when he filed the bill. "The very plant that fuels our offices and the Capitol is contributing to high levels of pollution and affecting families who live in the city. We need to lead by example on the environment by setting a bold goal of making our Capitol and Congress energy efficient and fighting for clean coal and renewable sources of energy. . . . In the shadow of the nation's Capitol, we should expect more than a dirty power plant that pollutes the air and our communities."
Kerry's bill does not specify the actions that should be taken but talks about a combination of energy efficiency, conservation and using both "onsite and offsite" renewable sources of energy. He does not call for a ban on coal from the power plant but talks about a preference for "clean coal."
Frank O'Donnell, president of the Clean Air Watch, an environmental watchdog group, said the lawmakers are taking steps in the right direction, but he is skeptical that meaningful changes will be made.
"As long as the Capitol Power Plant is still burning a substantial portion of coal, it's hard to believe that these plans will be successful," he said. "It's almost a microcosm of the entire problem of global warming -- Congress is having a debate but not willing to take on the biggest problem in their own back yard because of the connections of several senators, namely Robert Byrd and Mitch McConnell. It's almost as if Tony Soprano had a seat in the Senate to demand that plant burn coal as it did in 1910."