Since Republicans took over the House in January, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "Green the Capitol" campaign has faded into the background: Gone are the corn-based forks and spoons from the cafeteria and the posters urging member offices to become energy-efficient.
But the Capitol Power Plant is still a concern to both sides of the aisle. The plant is a century old, originally built to provide electricity for the Capitol using coal. Today, natural gas has become its primary fuel and the plant's use is limited to heating and cooling the Capitol complex. But it remains a significant source of emissions in Washington, D.C., and an embarrassment to Congress.
That may change in the near future, if Congress approves the proposed legislative branch spending bill, which includes a $200 million renovation to install cogeneration technology. That would enable the plant to generate electricity and use the byproduct to heat the Capitol complex.
In the short term, the project will cost Congress $2 million; a private company will pay the rest of the upfront costs, in return for an annual payment of the savings in energy costs from the improvements.
The House Appropriations Committee approved the legislative branch spending bill last week.
Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), who heads the subcommittee that handles Congress' budget, said in an email that the plant "plays an essential role" in the Architect of the Capitol's efforts to conserve energy.
"In these tough economic times, Congress must work effectively and efficiently with the resources it has, and it means looking carefully in our own backyard," he said. "Energy cogeneration on Capitol Hill makes economic and environmental sense and should be pursued for those reasons."
Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers hopes the renovation will help Congress reduce energy use by 30 percent by 2015, as required by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. A 2010 report from the Congressional Research Service estimated that the conversion efficiency of a cogeneration plant could be as much as 80 percent, compared to the 33 percent efficiency of a conventional coal-powered plant. The change could yield a 7.1 percent reduction in total energy consumption at the plant, according to the spending bill.
AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said the office is in the "early stages" of planning for the project. It is one of a few aimed at updating the plant, including multimillion-dollar repairs to the plant's utility tunnels after workers blew the whistle on asbestos problems more than four years ago.
But improvements to the plant have been controversial in the past. For years, coal-state lawmakers resisted the switch-over to natural gas. Then-Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) finally ordered a conversation to 100 percent natural gas in 2009. The fight continues; earlier this year, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) inserted an amendment into an early version of the 2011 continuing resolution that cut $1.5 million from the natural gas initiative.
The plan to use cogeneration technology comes out of a strategic long-term plan the AOC completed last year with the National Academy of Sciences. In prepared remarks to lawmakers earlier this year, Ayers said the switch would increase system reliability and the improved efficiency would help save money.
"The proposed cogeneration system also would significantly reduce emissions while providing a reliable source of electricity to the CPP and steam for heating congressional facilities," he said.
Ayers said he will use a utility energy services contract to pay for the cogeneration plant. Much like an energy savings performance contract -- which Ayers has used for other Capitol improvement projects -- a UESC allows a company to pay the upfront costs of a project in return for annual payments from the savings realized from the project.
The latest solution seems to have bipartisan support. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), who is the top Democrat on the legislative branch Appropriations subpanel, "supports any plan to improve efficiency," according to a spokesman. Crenshaw said the arrangement allows Congress to use its limited appropriations for other priorities, such as the hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance within the Capitol complex.
"Moreover, the energy savings are guaranteed," Crenshaw said. "If the contracted companies don't achieve the energy savings, they don't get paid."