Not long after the Democrats took control of the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, perhaps in a not-so-subtle dig at the hands-off global-warming policies of the Bush administration, asked for a survey to find out what it would take to "green" House offices that is, to modernize and streamline the buildings so they would have zero impact on the environment.
For technical help, Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Beard turned to Lawrence Berkeley, which has long had a reputation for unbiased, energy efficiency research.
The House office complex, which includes the House portion of the Capitol building, is an energy hog, clogged with obsolete appliances, electricity-sucking overhead lighting and leaky air conditioning and heating ducts. Worse, much of the electricity comes from high-polluting, coal-fired utility generators.
Evan Mills, leader of one Lawrence Berkeley team on the project, found the complex emitted about 91,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2006, about the same amount as from 17,200 cars in a single year.
One easy recommendation: Change the lights. Swap energy-hungry incandescent lights for efficient, compact fluorescent lamps. That would be the equivalent of removing 255 cars from the road and result in $245,000 a year in energy savings, lab scientist Francis Rubinstein discovered.
Changing light bulbs is relatively easy. From there on it gets stickier.
Christopher Payne, the lab's principle research associate in Washington, who shepherded the report, explains that many of the house buildings are old. The Capitol is more than 200 years old; the Cannon House Office Building was built in 1908; and the Rayburn House Office Building was finished in 1965.
"These buildings are examples of what I would call 'federal monumental architecture,'" Payne said. "They're big, solid this is the seat of power buildings with very high ceilings and thick walls."
Recommendations, besides light bulbs, include:
-Shift to 100 percent renewable electric power. The House uses about 103,000 megawatts of power a year and renewable power would cost about 20 percent more, but eliminate 57,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions a year, like removing 11,000 cars from the road.
-Install an ethanol tank and fueling pump and switch official House vehicles to ethanol within the next six months.
House vehicles may chug around on ethanol fairly soon, but don't look for solar panels to sprout on House rooftops anytime soon, Payne said. "There are 19 different agencies with authority over changes to buildings in the federal core and some of them have veto power," he said.
But the House is very interested in doing something soon, he said. It wants the changes accomplished before the end of the 110th Congress in 2008, he said.
There's another bottom line item in the report. Even after taking all possible practical steps to cut polluting carbon emissions, the complex will still emit carbon dioxide.
A final report is scheduled for release June 30.