Greening of the Capitol: Congress Leads by Example

Posted June 22, 2007 at 5:44pm

When it comes to public policy, Members of Congress rarely get an opportunity to lead by example. Yet actions sometimes speak louder than words and offer real opportunities. Now is one of those times. Lawmakers must demonstrate their seriousness about global warming and support for renewable energy by painting the Capitol green. Congress should seize the moment and show that green has truly become America’s new red, white and blue.

To recast U.S. energy and environmental policy, Congress must literally clean up its own house, starting with the Capitol. According to press reports, the Capitol complex — House and Senate office buildings, the Library of Congress, the Government Printing Office, the Botanic Garden and the Capitol Power Plant — emits the same amount of greenhouse gases as 58,000 automobiles, or roughly 316,000 metric tons a year. One-third of these pollutants come from the Capitol’s coal-fired power plant.

Key lawmakers understand that going green at the Capitol would provide a powerful symbol of energy independence and freedom. A Senate bill, for example, would authorize $3 million for a two-year carbon capture demonstration project at the Capitol Power Plant. House workers are converting 2,000 desk lamps to more energy-efficient fluorescent lighting. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed a plan, the Green the Capitol Initiative, on June 21 to make House buildings and operations carbon neutral by the end of 2008, as well as cut its energy consumption in half within a decade. Senate legislation would make the entire Capitol complex of 24 buildings carbon neutral by 2020.

These legislative steps are meritorious and will showcase Congressional leadership in maximizing the environmental efficiencies of existing historical buildings. But why wait until 2020 for carbon neutrality? Why not set a stretch goal for 2013 — five years away? Other opportunities Congress should consider include: sustainable landscaping, co-firing coal with biomass, better water management and utilization, carpooling and promotion of public transportation, low e-glazed windows, green roofs, ambient lighting with time sensors, variable speed drives for motors, better plug load management, solid waste management, more sub-metering and controls, smart building materials and environmentally preferred products and materials.

Reaching the goal of carbon neutrality will not be easy. The greening of the Capitol requires capital. Money for existing facilities is often lacking: It is merely a line item in the operations and maintenance budget. The real test for Congress is to find the will and the money to implement its environmental agenda for the Capitol complex. Real dollars are needed to pay for financial benchmarking, case studies and the explanation of the technical and financial metrics that can be shared with other U.S. markets.

It will be capital well spent. Cities, states, military complexes, colleges and universities, historic buildings, communities and non-governmental organizations will benefit from the expenditures made and the experiences garnered in the leadership effort to transform the Capitol. If we cannot ensure that our own Capitol sets the highest standards for energy efficiency and smart building management, we will fall short in the exercise of national leadership and fail all of the constituencies Congress serves. Congress must act to transform the Capitol into a laboratory of democracy, showcasing our intellectual capital and leading us into the 21st century.

Michael J. Zimmer is counsel at Thompson Hine LLP in Washington, D.C.