WASHINGTON— Imagine walking down independence Avenue late one Friday night. The time is way past when you would expect anyone to be working. Yet, as you walk by government building after government building, you notice that just about every single light on.

The federal government would like to promote energy efficiency across America, but first changes must be made right here in buildings on Capitol Hill. Starting with things like when to leave the lights on.

In the past five years, both houses of Congress have been working to make Capitol Hill a little more responsible.

“There are many ongoing projects within the House complex that are designed to save energy, resources and money,” said Dan Wieser, communications director for Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, in an email message.

On the Senate side of the Capitol, various acts have been passed to reach goals on reducing federal energy consumption and enhancing the use of renewable energy.

The Energy Independence Security Act — or EISA, as its known — passed in 2007 addresses federal energy efficiency by requiring federal buildings to achieve annual reductions in energy intensity or energy consumption per square foot of building area, leading to a 30 percent reduction in energy intensity by 2015, relative to a 2003 baseline.

GOP takes aim at “Green the Capitol”

In 2007, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., established the Green the Capitol Initiative, a program of the Office of the Chief Administrator. But recently the program has come under fire by House Republicans. The new GOP-controlled House passed legislation this year that would eliminate this initiative and a heated debate has broken out.

“After a thorough review of the compostable program that showed it cost almost a half million dollars annually with savings so minimal it was equal to removing one car from the road each year, it has been suspended,” said Weiser.

House cafeterias discontinued the composting program on Monday and an unabashed Pelosi unleashed her anger via Twitter:

#SoBeIt GOP brings back Styrofoam & ends composting–House will send 535 more tons to landfills #TalkAboutGovtWaste

The use of the hashtag refers to Speaker John Boehner’s statement — “So be it” — and has become a a new rallying cry for Democrats. The campaign, Pelosi said, has “positioned the House to lead by example within the federal government and across the nation when it comes to sustainable practices.”

The initiative’s goals include: reducing energy consumption by 50 percent over 10 years ending in 2017; only using electricity generated by renewable sources; and dramatically reducing the carbon footprint on Capitol Hill. Pelosi, when she was in charge, championed the efforts at cleaning up the Capitol.

But as Dan Lungren, R-Calif., said in January the composting program would be suspended because “it is neither cost-effective nor energy-efficient.”

The tough talk by Republicans has some Democrats scratching their heads.

“We think that’s a step backwards and it sets a bad example for the rest of the country at a time when we all need to be tightening our belts,” said Derek Schlickeisen, press secretary for Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., in an email message.

Also revealing his feeling via Twitter, Blumenauer wrote last night:

New majority has brought Styrofoam back to House cafeteria. I can hardly wait for the lead paint. Maybe we can ask China for other ideas.

The government has been putting substantial amounts of money, especially from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus plan, into improving energy efficiency.

However, that may change soon.

“I would be surprised if, in the current budget crises, these programs continue,” said Richard Aiken, president of the Consumer Energy Council of America.

Other energy-saving measures

Following the Green the Capitol initiative, in 2009 the Architect of the Capitol (AoC) entered an energy saving performance contract with NORESCO, LLC. After a 30-month construction period, House office buildings are estimated to reach a 23 percent reduction in total energy consumption.

With all of these acts, initiatives and contracts the government seems to be taking major strides towards greater energy efficiency and the result has been plenty of positive outcomes.

“Our office has absolutely seen the positive effects of these energy efficiency programs. We’ve saved thousands of taxpayer dollars and lowered our water and electricity use,” said Schlickeisen

As of 2009 ,“the Congress met its energy reduction goals under EISA 2007 for the fourth year in a row, and reduced energy consumption by 15.3 percent across the Capitol campus.  This exceeded the FY 2009 requirement of a 12 percent reduction (as compared to the FY 2003 baseline),” said Eva Malecki, the AoCs communications director through email, making it clear that positive environmental change has become a priority.

And these goals are not simply set low to ensure that the government will easily meet them.

“They have been doing a lot of work in the federal government to meet energy efficiency goals,” said Aiken.

The architect’s deal appears to be working. The government is on track to meet its goal of a 23 percent reduction in total energy consumption. Some of the changes include:

  • Replacing 15,000 incandescent bulbs with energy efficient CFLs across the Capitol campus.
  • Upgrading nearly 33,000 lighting fixtures to “energy-efficient, state-of-the-art lighting controls for daylight harvesting and dimming” in House buildings.
  • Upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls, control strategies and equipment customized for each building.
  • Installing new low-flow restroom fixtures, faucets and showerheads in all house buildings.

A specific highlight is the recently-built Capitol Visitor Center, which opened the public in late 2008.

“The Capitol Visitor Center is an excellent example of our use of sustainability principles as it was designed to incorporate many green features within the constraints of its unique requirements,” said Malecki.

Located below the East Capitol grounds, the Capitol Visitor Center contains space for exhibits, food service, orientation theaters and an auditorium, among other amenities. The center is about 580,000 square feet and almost three-quarters the size of the Capitol itself.

From the exact placement of the center to the “low-volatile organic compound emitting construction materials” to the self-flushing toilets the Capitol Visitor Center lives on energy efficiency.

Pelosi’s Green the Capitol campaign, except for that composting controversy, has also stayed mostly intact.

“Some [changes] are relatively small and simple to implement— such as our reuse centers that let people easily trade office supplies instead of throwing them out…others are bigger such as the House-wide effort to consolidate member office computer servers,” explained Weiser.

And remember those late-night lighting issues?

Just because the lights are on, don’t think hard-working Capitol Hill staffers are wasting energy. According to the Green the Capitol’s April 2010 report, sensors are being installed in House offices and stairwells in the Rayburn and Ford House office buildings. These sensors dim the lights when no one’s around, in effect saving energy. Also, in the Longworth cafeteria, sensors have been installed that lower the lights after normal business hours.

Congress is also educating more people who work on Capitol Hill about the benefits of energy efficiency. A Member Outreach Program has already trained more than 220 members, committee and leadership offices from almost all 50 states and U.S. territories on maintaining sustainable business practices.