Capitol Power Plant

Coordinates: 38°52′58.3464″N 77°0′27.0576″W / 38.882874°N 77.007516°W / 38.882874; -77.007516

The Capitol Power Plant is a power plant which provides steam and cooled water for the United States Capitol and other buildings in the Capitol Complex. Though it was originally built to supply the Capitol complex with electricity, the plant has not produced electricity for the Capitol since 1952. Electricity generation is now handled by the same power grid that serves the rest of metropolitan Washington. The plant has been serving the Capitol since 1910 and is under the administration of the Architect of the Capitol (see 2 U.S.C. § 2162) The power plant was constructed under the terms of an act of Congress passed on 28 April, 1904. The Capitol Power Plant burned 17,108 tons of coal in 2006, producing about 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.


Senators from coal mining states blocked a proposal in 2000 to use cleaner fuel for the plant. Senators Mitch McConnell (Republican of Kentucky) and Robert Byrd (Democrat of West Virginia), both from coal mining states, used their influence as two of the Senate's most senior members to block this proposal. In May 2007, CNN reported that two companies, International Resources Inc. and the Kanawha Eagle mine, have a contract to supply a combined 40,000 tons of coal to the plant over the next two years. The companies have given a combined $26,300 to the McConnell and Byrd campaigns for the 2006 election.

In June 2007, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the "Greening the Capitol" initiative. The initiative's goal is to make the Capitol carbon neutral, and the power plant is a major obstacle to achieving this objective. In November 2007, Daniel Beard, the House's Chief Administrative Officer, announced that he would purchase $89,000 worth of carbon offsets for 30,000 tons of carbon emissions. Beard made the purchase from the Chicago Climate Exchange. On February 28, 2009, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent a letter to the Architect of the Capitol asking him to create a plan to switch the power plant entirely to natural gas by the end of 2009. This letter came just three days before the scheduled protest, which organizers said would happen anyway.


Table 1: Summary of Point Source Emissions: District of Columbia in 2002 (Tons)


For a plant its size (roughly 1/100th the size of the typical 500 MW power plant), the Capitol Power Plant produces a remarkably high quantity of the type of particulate matter (PM2.5) most closely associated with human health effects. As shown in Table 1, in 2002, the plant emitted a full 65 percent of the PM2.5 emitted in the District of Columbia.

Particle pollution, also called particulate matter or PM, is one of six "criteria pollutants" (PM, lead, mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone) regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. PM is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets in the air. When breathed in, these particles can reach the deepest regions of the lungs. Exposure to particle pollution is linked to a variety of significant health problems, ranging from aggravated asthma to premature death in people with heart and lung disease. Particle pollution also is the main cause of visibility impairment in the nation’s cities and national parks. Fine particles (PM2.5) are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller; and inhaleable coarse particles (PM10) are smaller than 10 micrometers and larger than 2.5 micrometers.

In 2006, EPA tightened the 24-hour fine particle standard from 65 micrograms per cubic meter to 35 micrograms per cubic meter, while leaving the annual fine particle unchanged. EPA retained the annual fine particle standard at 15 micrograms per cubic meter. EPA retained the pre-existing 24-hour PM10 standard of 150 micrograms per cubic meter. Due to a lack of evidence linking health problems to long-term exposure to coarse particle pollution, the Agency revoke the annual PM10 standard.

Even before the EPA tightened the fine particular standard, Washington, D.C., was a "non-attainment" area.