Beacon or Boondoggle? New Lights For the Capitol
Update Would Conserve Energy, Democrats Say

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The warm white glow of the Capitol dome may soon go green, part of an effort by Democratic congressional leaders to save energy and modernize the District's nocturnal landscape.

But like so many issues on Capitol Hill, the plan to update the building's 18-year-old exterior lighting has ignited partisan bickering. Republicans and other critics consider the project's early phase wasteful, and they question whether a $671,900 contract to design the lighting system was steered by Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Administration Committee, to a company in his home district.

"Everyone supports making the Capitol more energy efficient, but we don't have to waste taxpayer dollars to do it," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). "This is a ridiculous boondoggle."

The project is part of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's environmentally friendly "Green the Capitol" initiative, which includes using more recycled paper, distributing more documents electronically, purchasing carbon offsets for the House's greenhouse-gas emissions, and developing a plan to use wind power and other renewable energy sources.

Updating the lights would bring the Capitol up to par with makeovers at the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials and the Washington Monument, proponents say. The Lincoln Memorial's relighting was completed in 2007, as some fixtures dating to the 1920s were replaced. The Washington Monument got new lights in 2006 to replace a 1970s system.

Lighting manufacturer Osram Sylvania picked up the $900,000 tab in 2001 to overhaul a lighting system at the Jefferson Memorial that dated to the 1960s, using the donation to celebrate the company's 100th year in business.

The Capitol, which last got new lights in 1990, is next in line. Its system consists of 38 1,000-watt metal halide lamps mounted on rooftops over the House and Senate wings. The lamps burn for about eight hours a night and consume more than 122,000 kilowatt-hours of power each year. The annual electric bill is nearly $15,000.

Daniel P. Beard, the House's chief administrative officer, said that if House and Senate leaders give final approval, new lighting could be installed by year's end. Officials do not yet have an estimate for the cost of the project.

"You have the most recognized building in America, and lighting it with new energy-efficient lighting has tremendous symbolic value," Beard said. "We're not going to drastically cut our energy consumption, but it will have a modest impact, and I think it will help promote the energy-efficient-lighting industry, which is in all of our best interests."

But converting to a more eco-friendly system has turned out to be expensive -- and the work has just begun. Beard's office rejected two lower bids to recommend awarding the design contract to the Lighting Practice of Philadelphia, located in Brady's district. The contract covers no installation costs.

In a Feb. 19 memo to Brady, whose committee approved the award, Beard said that of the seven bidders for the contract, the Philadelphia company offered "the best value and greatest opportunity for success." In an interview, he said the two lowest bidders were eliminated because they did not provide enough information for his office to assess their financial health.

A Brady spokesman said there was nothing improper about the selection process. The committee "has a procedure, and the procedure was adhered to," said Kyle Anderson, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee.

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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