Greening the (U.S.) Capitol

Like many people, I was caught up in the excitement of last year’s election. I was especially excited to find another political junkie site—Politico. While getting my daily hit today, an article about “Green the Capitol” caught my eye. When the Democrats took over the House of Representatives after the 2006 elections, one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s early actions was to direct the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of the House to come up with a plan to ‘Green the Capitol”. By June 2007, CAO Dan Beard had produced a 40+ page plan to do just that. The 3 major goals were to make the House buildings carbon neutral, reduce the carbon footprint of the House, and to make the House a model of sustainability. A good deal of this plan is being adopted across the House side of the Capitol Complex, which includes the House side of the Capitol, and the four House Office Buildings—Longworth, Cannon, Ford, and Rayburn.

“Green The Capitol’s” section on sustainability called for the development of a House Sustainability Plan to “provide a road map for major steps to sustainability over the next 20 years”. http://www.cao.house.gov/
greenthecapitol/green-the-capitol-final-report.pdf The sustainability plan included items such as lowered water use, landscaping issues, transit and transportation, food service, increased recycling, and procurement of locally or regionally produced environmentally friendly products where possible for building maintenance needs. Examples of these products include low or no VOC paint; office products containing recycled content, bio-based products or certified (sustainably grown) wood, preferably made in the United States; and GreenSeal certified cleaning products.

Probably the most publicly visible initiative was the overhauling of the House cafeteria, which serves 2.5 million meals annually. The cafeteria now serves much more locally grown, organic, sustainable, or seasonal food than it used to. As an example of this, the cafeteria’s fish purchases use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program as a guide. This program provides information as to whether a given species of fish was farmed or fished in a sustainable manner. Another example is that the cutlery and food containers now are now compostable and/or biodegradable.

A much less visible part of the Capitol complex is the Capitol Power Plant, located in Southeast Washington. (http://www.aoc.gov) This plant produces steam and chilled water to heat and cool 23 facilities near the Capitol, including the House and Senate Office Buildings, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and Union Station. In 2007, the plant used 49% coal; in Fiscal Year 2008 (ending September 2008), the plant used 35% coal (and 65% natural gas). In February 2009 Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that they want the Power Plant to only burn natural gas. Significant retrofitting will be required, so this may take a while.

The US Capitol is one of the most visible and public spaces in the country, if not the world. It has deep symbolic meaning as a symbol of freedom and opportunity. Hopefully, via the ongoing “Green the Capitol” initiative, it will also become symbolic of the possibilities of sustainable operations.

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