Hill Wants Cleaner Power Plant

Posted May 11, 2007 at 6:41pm

Facing increased pressure from lawmakers, watchdog groups and media outlets, Capitol Hill officials are trying to make environmental upgrades at the Capitol Power Plant, the century-old facility that provides cooling and heating to the Capitol complex.

But tough challenges lay ahead, and making the plant eco-friendly will require years of hard work mixed in with political pressure.

About one-third of greenhouse gas emissions generated by the entire Capitol complex come from the power plant, according to an April 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office. In fiscal 2006, the plant produced 102,659 metric tons of emissions.

Among the recommendations the GAO put forth for reducing emission levels was to adjust the fuel mix at the facility to increase the use of natural gas, which produces less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels. The plant also uses oil and coal, considered to be one of the worst pollutants for the environment.

The plant is comprised of three separate facilities: two refrigeration plants, referred to as east and west, and one steam generation plant. Work is currently under way to expand the west refrigeration plant by installing more efficient chillers and other energy-saving systems, according to Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol’s office.

In recent months, an array of lawmakers have pushed for further improvements to the plant, which is the second-largest point-source of pollution in the District of Columbia.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently assigned Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard to study what the House can do to make the Congressional campus carbon neutral. The report is expected to be finalized this summer.

At a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Friday, Beard pushed to get rid of coal at the plant, CongressNow reported.

“If we switched to 100 percent natural gas, we would certainly have a significantly reduced environmental footprint and carbon footprint,” Beard said.

Committee members backed the initiative, saying that change must take place at the plant. Ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) even took a swipe at Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who, along with other Members of coal-heavy states, has been accused of being a leading reason why coal still burns at the plant.

“We’re in a comfortable room here,” Mica said. “And actually the power and all generators for the air conditioning is coming from a plant which should have been changed out — but it’s run by coal, which comes from West Virginia, which Sen. Byrd has insisted we keep, no matter whether it produces the highest source of emissions or not.”

Cleaning the plant hasn’t been just left to the House. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee is expected to hold a hearing on the matter soon, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) recently introduced a bill that would require the Capitol complex to become carbon neutral by 2020.

(A few days after he introduced that bill, Kerry put forth a measure to ban all new coal plants that use obsolete technology.)

“The very plant that fuels our offices and the Capitol is contributing to high levels of pollution and affecting families who live in the city,” Kerry said. “We need to lead by example on the environment by setting a bold goal of making our Capitol and the Congress energy efficient and fighting for clean coal and renewable sources of energy.”

But according to Malecki, that’s easier said than done.

“The ability to burn three fuels at the CPP assures reliability, provides flexibility, and ensures some protection against rapidly rising fuel costs as we can switch to a lower-cost fuel at any time,” Malecki said. “To cease using one fuel completely would require significant capital improvements to the CPP, necessitate infrastructure changes to the Capitol complex, and increase average fuel costs.”

The City’s Role

With all the increased attention being given to the facility, the D.C. government, which monitors the power plant’s emission levels, is expected to begin a thorough review of the facility within the next few weeks, according to Kim Katzenbargar, who helps oversee air quality issues in the D.C. Department of Health.

“It’s a political issue at this point,” Katzenbargar said. “We don’t see any past noncompliance issues at this facility, but it’s something we will certainly look at.”

That’s not to say that incidents have not happened at the power plant to cause concern, however. The plant was issued a notice of violation in December 2003 for failing to comply with standards, Katzenbargar noted.

Between April 1, 2006, and March 31, 2007, plant officials notified the D.C. government of several incidents at the facility that caused excess opacity. (Katzenbargar described opacity as “just looking at the stack, and seeing if anything is coming out.”)

Most of the incidents lasted for just a few minutes. The longest incident during that period took place on Dec. 5, when opacity levels were above 10 percent for 30 minutes, according to a letter submitted to the D.C. Department of Health by the AOC. At times, opacity levels reached up to 28.8 percent.

Plant officials take immediate action to correct such situations, which do not indicate noncompliance with permit requirements, Malecki said.

“This is very common,” Katzenbargar added. “Especially during start-up and shutdown, you’re going to have these exceedences because of what’s collected in the boiler in that time. If you just get a couple of minutes here and there, it’s not that serious.”

The main issue, Katzenbargar said, is how the plant moves forward with its environmental policies, a decision that must be made by lawmakers.

Rich Gold, an environmental expert who also serves as the head of the federal team for the law firm Holland & Knight, said there are unique challenges that the legislative branch faces with eco-issues.

“Both the cost and the realities of working in and around the Capitol make changes that, if we were out in Boise would be relatively minor and easy, much more complex,” Gold said.

The ongoing delays and cost increases at the Capitol Visitors Center could pose one challenge, Gold said, as lawmakers now are wary of making any major renovations to the Capitol complex. But at the same time, there is a drive on the Hill to make environmental improvements for the entire campus and a sense it is something that simply must be done, Gold said.

“Members kind of get that it’s their neighborhood here, and it’s not doing any good if it stays that way,” he said.

Plus, Gold said, the utilities industry and other businesses are being asked by Congress to make major changes to their own facilities, and it looks bad if there is “a dirty plant sitting here just six blocks away.”

Malecki said the plant’s environmental performance has improved in recent years.

The AOC had to reduce its energy consumption in fiscal 2006 by 2 percent under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. In the end, the AOC reduced consumption by 6.5 percent.

The plant was the biggest contributor to that, Malecki said. Between fiscal 2003 and 2006, the plant cut its electricity consumption by 6 percent and its fuel energy consumption by 12.3 percent, she added.

Gold predicted that significant change would come, although he said it would take time to change attitudes on Capitol Hill.

“We can’t tell Capitol Power to stop burning coal as long as it’s legal to do so,” Katzenbargar said.