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Beacon or Boondoggle? New Lights For the Capitol

Supporters say that relighting the Capitol would bring it on par with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, which have already received new lighting.
Supporters say that relighting the Capitol would bring it on par with the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, which have already received new lighting. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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Helen K. Diemer, vice president of the Lighting Practice, said: "We believe we won on the strength of our proposal." She added that newer lights will be "more powerful and have better control capabilities than what was available in the late '80s."

Lighting experts say newer technology also offers sharper color and better light distribution across the dome, whose north and south faces now have better illumination than its east and west sides. Newer technology also can improve the lighting of the 19-foot Statue of Freedom that sits atop the building, 288 feet above the east front plaza.

Still, there are concerns. Even if a new configuration were to miraculously reduce electricity consumption to zero, at current electricity rates it would take more than 45 years to recoup money spent on the system's design, critics note.

"You've got to balance the costs" and the energy savings, said Steve Ellis, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit government watchdog group. "This is going to be an expensive ego trip if it doesn't actually bear out the savings from efficiency gains."

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said the project is not just about money. New lights "will not only bring our 'beacon of democracy' in line with other landmarks on the National Mall but allow the dome to be a beacon to all reminding us of the need to address the global climate crisis," he said.

Tom Martin, executive vice president of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the Capitol is not just another building.

"It's a place where we can project America's values and our history and our heritage," Martin said. "In that context, having the Capitol reflect and teach us all the values of energy efficiency, thoughtful investments in our future, makes an enormous amount of sense. We wouldn't expect the Capitol to use the same kind of accounting that we'd use in our home of whether something makes sense or not."


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