Greening the Capitol The House (but not the Senate) Cleans up its Act

Cafeteria stations feature fresh-made wraps and salads, hormone-free burgers and mounds of fruit arrayed on bamboo mats. Food is served on compostable sugar cane plates and beverages in cornstarch cups. Receptacles invite easy waste separation. Welcome to the Longworth House Office Building Café in Washington, D.C.

Lights in the Capitol dome will be replaced with energy-efficient bulbs. Greening Czars Dan Beard and Nancy Pelosi made immediate changes to wasteful House operations.© Getty Images

The food service makeover is a tipoff to how fast things are changing in one branch of the U.S. legislature. Just over a year ago—March 1, 2007—newly elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued her edict: the House of Representatives must become carbon neutral by the end of this year and cut its carbon footprint in half within a decade. The Speaker’s first order of business was to lure Dan Beard out of semi-retirement to act as Greening Czar. Beard previously held top jobs in the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation, the House Appropriations and Natural Resources Committee and the National Audubon Society.

On arrival, Beard confronted the status quo. In 2006, the House was responsible for 91,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, equal to the output of 17,200 cars. Heating and air conditioning came from an ancient carbon-belching coal-fueled plant, the third largest source of air pollution in the District of Columbia. House printers spewed 70 million sheets of paper annually, while non-recyclable refuse from almost three million meals was pitched in the trash. Inefficient lighting was everywhere, including the Capitol Dome, where fixtures were so hot workers needed protective suits to handle them.

Within six months of Pelosi’s directive, Beard and his Green the Capitol crew had the House using 100 percent post-consumer waste recycled paper, sparing 30,000 trees a year. House vending machines were swapped for energy-sipping models. Bike racks sprouted around the Capitol campus. Meanwhile, the facilities folks in the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) office began to switch incandescents for compact fluorescent lamps, replace leaky windows and test new systems, such as dimmable ballasts which keep lighting levels constant but taper energy usage according to incoming sunlight.

The workload imposed by the House adds to what AOC has been quietly doing for years to comply with legislative mandates, most recently the Energy Policy Act of 2005. AOC actually exceeded the Act’s energy-reduction goals for the Capitol complex—dropping use by 6.5 percent between 2003 and 2006 instead of the two percent required.

Restaurant Associates, whose clients include Google and The New York Times, transformed House food operations over one weekend last December. Now the menu is 85 percent fresh, filled with items baked or grown within 150 miles. The walls shine with eco-friendly paint trimmed with wood certified by the Sustainable Forestry Institute.

“We were 100 percent composted from day one,” says Perry Plumart, deputy director of Green the Capitol. Discarded food, utensils, cups, clamshell containers and other compostables are fed through a new on-site food pulper to remove water and dramatically shrink the volume. The U.S. Department of Agriculture commercially composts the output and uses it at facilities in nearby Maryland.

Despite the fact that some House office buildings date back to 1790, Green the Capitol is “struggling” for LEED certification, according to Beard. Turns out Congress members and Senators exempted their offices from no-smoking laws, so the buildings aren’t eligible for energy-efficiency certification. But Beard is working on a compromise with the Green Building Council so certain areas can qualify.

To make up for what remained of its carbon footprint—30,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases—the House bought $89,000 in carbon offsets on the Chicago Climate Exchange. That decision brought some flack. The Washington Post reported that some of the money went to programs which were either ineffective or terminated. But Beard makes no apologies. “This is a fledgling market,” he says. “Yes, it has problems, but it’s the only market we have. And I would say to any of the critics: if they’ve got a better system, then pass legislation to put it in place, and we”ll participate in that market as well.”

More substantial green steps are underway. The House is buying wind power to offset all of its electricity, and switching from burning mainly coal to all natural gas for its share of heat and air conditioning supplied by the Capitol Power Plant.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate it’s business as usual. The Senate has no equivalent to the Green the Capitol office, yet still benefits from green efforts. AOC sealed the building’s 142 non-working chimneys, for instance, almost all of which belong to the Senate. The AOC tried to eliminate coal from the Congressional fuel mixture in 2000, but was thwarted by powerful coal state senators, including current President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

But change may be coming. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 orders the Capitol Power Plant to operate “in the most energy-efficient manner possible to minimize carbon emissions and operating costs.” Three million dollars was allocated to study ways to capture, store and use carbon dioxide emitted from the plant.

There is one green project on which the House and Senate agree: getting rid of those hot lights on the Capitol Dome. A test of energy-efficient replacement lighting should happen this summer, with hopes of a complete changeover by the end of September. But Beard says the move is largely symbolic because it will only save taxpayers about $10,000 a year in energy costs.

And what about savings from Green the Capitol as a whole? “The cost savings to the taxpayer is a moving target,” says Jeff Ventura, communications director for Beard’s office. “For example, properly metering our energy usage will save $750,000 a year and pay for itself in six years.” Ventura is confident that, overall, the multi-year effort will lead to a major reduction in energy usage and taxpayer dollars.