Last week, the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, DC quietly secured the final permits needed to transform it into an efficient cogeneration plant. Once constructed, the new cogeneration system will use 100 percent natural gas to power the buildings in the Capitol complex, including the Capitol Building, the House and Senate office buildings, the Supreme Court, the U.S. Botanic Garden and the Library of Congress buildings, among others.
Located in southeast DC, the Capitol Power Plant (CPP) was built in 1910 under the terms of an act of Congress passed on April 28, 1904. Originally intended to supply steam for heating and electricity to the U.S. Capitol, the CPP added a refrigeration plant to provide chilled water for air conditioning in the 1930s and stopped producing electricity altogether in 1951.
Today, the CPP produces steam and chilled water to heat and cool the 17 million square feet of building space of the 23 facilities in the Capitol complex using seven boilers capable of burning three types of fuel for steam generation: coal, natural gas, and oil. Fortunately, coal use has been steadily declining at the plant — going from 56 percent of CPP’s fuel mix in 2007 to 5 percent in 2011. Coal is mostly used as an emergency backup fuel source.
The effort to reduce the use of coal at the CPP goes back to 2000 when the office of the Architect of the Capitol, the administrator of the plant, tried to eliminate coal from the fuel mix. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and former Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), both representatives of coal-producing states and recipients of campaign money from the coal companies that supplied the CPP, effectively shut down the attempt to switch to natural gas — a cleaner-burning fuel source.
But momentum for the switch to natural gas began to slowly build and in 2007 Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi launched the Green the Capitol Initiative (defunded in 2011 by the GOP) and though it did not include a plan to reduce the CPP’s emissions, it did address the emissions controversially through a policy to purchase carbon offsets. More importantly, it called attention to the fact that the Capitol really wouldn’t be “green” until its main plant was no longer relying on one of the dirtiest, most air-polluting fuel sources.
The breaking point came in December 2008 when environmental activists Wendell Berry and Bill McKibben wrote an open letter to all Americans calling for civil disobedience that would take place in front of the CPP on March 2, 2009. This call to action seemingly prompted Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to pen their own letter in February 2009, but this one went directly to Acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers, saying:
… there is a shadow that hangs over the success of your and our efforts to improve the environmental performance of the Capitol and the entire Legislative Branch. The Capitol Power Plant (CPP) continues to be the number one source of air pollution and carbon emissions in the District of Columbia and the focal point for criticism from local community and national environmental and public health groups.
Mari Hernandez is a Research Associate on the Energy Team at the Center for American Progress.