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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Capitol Power Plant: Background and Greening Options

Jacob R. Straus
Analyst on the Congress

Paul W. Parfomak
Specialist in Energy and Infrastructure Policy

The Capitol Power Plant and its impact on congressional operations are often misunderstood. Although it was originally constructed as an electric power plant, the Capitol Power Plant has not generated electric power for over 50 years. Rather, the facility is used to produce steam and chilled water for heating and cooling of Capitol complex buildings. Because it is a significant source of atmospheric emissions, some Members of Congress are concerned about the operation of the facility and its impact on the environment.

In March 2007, the House leadership asked the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) and his Senate counterparts to undertake a "Green the Capitol" initiative to reduce the Capitol complex's environmental footprint. As a result of this request, the CAO issued a report in June 2007 which recommended, among other strategies, operating the Capitol Power Plant with natural gas and optimizing operations to reduce energy consumption at the plant. On February 26, 2009, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol calling for the facility to be converted to run exclusively on natural gas for all of its steam production. The Architect of the Capitol took immediate action to maximize the use of natural gas and on May 1, 2009, the Speaker and the Majority Leader of the Senate announced that the Capitol Power Plant will no longer burn coal, unless backup capacity is needed.

There are also proposals to further improve Capitol Power Plant efficiency by outsourcing plant management or converting the plant to a combined heat and power (CHP) facility. Each of these options has distinct costs, environmental benefits, implementation requirements, and risks—not all of which have been thoroughly explored. It appears unlikely that outsourcing of the plant's operations could provide environmental benefits of the same magnitude as converting the plant to 100% natural gas or biomass, although such an action could provide incremental environmental benefits. When both steam production and power generation are considered, the overall environmental benefits of a CHP plant could be significant.

Measures taken to date at the Capitol Power Plant have already resulted in significant environmental benefits, but there are operational and plant conversion options which may reduce the plant's environmental impact even further. These options may be costly, however, both in terms of fuel expenses and capital requirements—and may involve price and operational risk. Consequently, careful comparison of all the options for this aspect of "Greening the Capitol" may be required to ensure that the most cost-effective and environmentally beneficial investments are made while ensuring the continued supply of utility services to the Capitol.

Date of Report: June 3, 2010
Number of Pages: 21
Order Number: R40433
Price: $29.95

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