District of Columbia and coal

From Global Energy Monitor

Pepco, a subsidiary of Pepco Holdings Inc. (PHI) operates two power plants in the District of Columbia, the 580 megawatt Benning station (units 15 and 16) and the 288 MW Buzzard Point station; however, both Benning and Buzzard Point burn distillate fuel oil rather than coal.[1] The main consumer of coal in the District is the controversial Capitol Power Plant, which provides steam and cooled water for the Capitol complex but has not generated electricity since 1952.

Background on Capitol Power Plant

Though it was originally built to supply the Capitol complex with electricity, the Capitol Power Plant has not produced electricity for the Capitol since 1952.[2] This duty is handled by the power grid which 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. It was constructed under the terms of an act of Congress passed on April 28, 1904.

Fuel Usage

As of the spring of 2007, about 49 percent of the fuel burned at the plant was coal, 43 percent was natural gas, and the rest was oil.[3] In 2006 the plant burned 17,108 tons of coal.[3] This is about 1/100th of the amount of coal used annually by a typical 500 megawatt coal plant.[4]


Table 1: Summary of Point Source Emissions: District of Columbia in 2002 (Tons)[5]

Facility PM2.5 NOx SO2 PM10
Capitol Power Plant 83 129 483 84
Pepco Benning Road Generating Station 15/16 15 253 1467 67
Pepco Buzzard Point Generating Station 5 340 390 5
GSA Central Heating Plant 12 66 8 12
10 Miscellaneous Sources 12 529 320 14
TOTAL 127 1,317 2,468 182
Share produced by Capitol Power Plant 65% 10% 20% 46%

Carbon dioxide

The Capitol Power Plant produces about 60,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually.[3]


For a plant its size (roughly 1/100th the size of the typical 500 MW power plant), the 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.[6] Fine particles (PM2.5) are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller; and inhalable coarse particles (PM10) are smaller than 10 micrometers and larger than 2.5 micrometers.[6]

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.[6]

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

In 2007, the Washington Post reported that during the 1990s dust collectors that trap soot, known as "baghouses," were added to the plant.[3] However, the extremely high level of particulates for a plant of its size suggest that the Capitol Power Plant does not actually have any effective particulate control measures.

Sulfur dioxide

In 2002, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments reported that the plant was the second-largest fixed source of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide in Washington. A Pepco plant was the largest.[3]

Washington, D.C. Health Impacts

Based on a May 17, 2002 briefing before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee by Harvard’s Dr. Jonathan Levy, the Clean Air Task Force published results of a study undertaken by a team of researchers from Harvard School of Public Health to, in part, estimate the health risks of five power plants in the Metropolitan Washington D.C. area. In the study, researchers estimated that over 250 premature deaths per year are associated with fine particulate matter air pollution from five power plants in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia. These plants are: Benning, Chalk Point, Dickerson, Possum Point and Potomac River. The Capitol Power Plant was not included in the study. Disadvantaged groups were found to be especially vulnerable to air pollution; while only 25 percent of the population studied has less than a high school education this group suffers approximately half of the mortality attributed to the plants.[7] A separate study by the Clean Air Task Force ranked Washington, D.C. fifth among U.S. metropolitan areas in power plant health impacts. The study estimate that power plant emissions produce 515 annual deaths, 524 hospital admissions, and 851 heart attacks.[8]

Congressional Action

Representative James Moran (Democrat, Virginia) has called the Capitol Power Plant the "armpit of the Capitol."[3] Senators from coal mining states blocked a proposal in 2000 to use cleaner fuel for the plant. Senators Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) and Robert Byrd (Democrat, 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. [9] Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has announced an initiative to make the Capitol carbon neutral. The power plant acts as a major obstacle to achieving this objective.[9] In November 2007 Daniel Beard, the Chief Administrative Officer of the United States House of Representatives, announced that he will purchase $89,000 worth of carbon offsets for 30,000 tons of carbon emissions. Beard will make the purchase from the Chicago Climate Exchange. [10][11]

Pelosi and Reid announce switch to natural gas

On February 26, 2009, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid directed the Capitol Architect, Stephen T. Ayers, to switch the Capitol Power Plant to running natural gas. The text of the letter is as follows:[12]

February 26, 2009
Mr. Stephen T. Ayers
Acting Architect of the Capitol
SB-15 U.S. Capitol
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Mr. Ayers:
We want to commend your office for working to implement the Green the Capitol Initiative by increasing energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is a shadow that hangs over the success of your and our efforts to improve the environmental performance of the Capitol and the entire Legislative Branch. The Capitol Power Plant (CPP) continues to be the number one source of air pollution and carbon emissions in the District of Columbia and the focal point for criticism from local community and national environmental and public health groups.
Since 1910, as you know, the CPP has continuously provided the Capitol, House and Senate office buildings, and other facilities with steam and chilled water for heating and cooling purposes. The plant remains an important component of the facilities master plan and the future of the Capitol complex, and we know your office has taken steps to make the plant cleaner and more efficient. While your progress has been noteworthy, more must be done to dramatically reduce plant emissions and the CPP's impact. Since there are not projected to be any economical or feasible technologies to reduce coal-burning emissions soon, there are several steps you should take in the short term to reduce the amount of coal burned at the plant while preparing for a conversion to cleaner burning natural gas.
We encourage you to take advantage of current excess capacity to burn cleaner fuels and reduce pollution. According to the General Accounting Office (GAO) and an independent analysis from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the boilers at the CPP are now running with more capacity than has been historically demanded or anticipated. Even with the new Capitol Visitor Center in operation, these analyses show there is sufficient capacity to further increase the burning of natural gas and still meet energy demands at peak hours.
We are also interested in identifying and supporting funding to retrofit CPP if necessary so that it can operate on 100 percent natural gas. Unfortunately, our staff has received conflicting information and cost estimates on what would actually be required to operate the CPP year-round with exclusively natural gas. If a retrofit of two remaining boilers is indeed required, then we encourage you to develop realistic budget numbers to accomplish the retrofit expeditiously including any costs for the purchase of additional quantities of natural gas. In your budget analysis, it is important to take into account that time is of the essence for converting the fuel of the CPP. Therefore it is our desire that your approach focus on retrofitting at least one of the coal boilers as early as this summer, and the remaining boiler by the end of the year.
While the costs associated with purchasing additional natural gas will certainly be higher, the investment will far outweigh its cost. The switch to natural gas will allow the CPP to dramatically reduce carbon and criteria pollutant emissions, eliminating more than 95 percent of sulfur oxides and at least 50 percent of carbon monoxide. The conversion will also reduce the cost of storing and transporting coal as well as the costs associated with cleaning up the fly ash and waste. Eliminating coal from the fuel mixture should also assist the City of Washington, D.C., in meeting and complying with national air quality standards, and demonstrate that Congress can be a good and conscientious neighbor by mitigating health concerns for residents and workers around Capitol Hill.
Taking this major step toward cleaning up the Capitol Power Plant's emissions would be an important demonstration of Congress' willingness to deal with the enormous challenges of global warming, energy independence and our inefficient use of finite fossil fuels. We strongly encourage you to move forward aggressively with us on a comprehensive set of policies for the entire Capitol complex and the entire Legislative Branch to quickly reduce emissions and petroleum consumption through energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean alternative fuels.
Thank you for your attention to this critical matter.
Best regards,
Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader


Under an arrangement with the Environmental Protection Agency, the plant reports its emissions to the city of Washington.

Neighborhood Response

Residents of the Capitol Hill neighborhood interviewed the Architect of the Capitol about the plant in 2006. They were informed that the only way to optimizing the plant’s efficiency was to rebuild it. This, however, requires an act of Congress.[13]

Citizen Action

March 2, 2009 Protest

In December, 2008, a coalition of organizations announced a non-violent civil disobedience action at the Capitol Power Plant to be held on March 2, 2009.[14][15] As of late February, 2009, the following organizations and individuals had endorsed the action:[16]



  • Rocky Anderson - Former Mayor of Salt Lake City, Executive Director of High Road for Human Rights
  • Wendell Berry - Author and poet
  • Jeff Biggers - Journalist, Author - “The United States of Appalachia”
  • Mark Bowen - Author, Thin Ice and Censoring Science
  • Adrienne Maree Brown - Executive director, The Ruckus Society
  • Noam Chomsky - activist, author, Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Tim DeChristopher - “Bidder 70″ activist
  • John Densmore - Musician
  • Bob Edgar - President of Common Cause
  • Paul Ehrlich - President, Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University
  • Mike Farrell - Actor, activist
  • Michael Franti - Musician
  • Ross Gelbspan - Author
  • Tom Goldtooth - Executive director, Indigenous Environmental Network
  • Bill Greider, National correspondent, The Nation
  • Daryl Hannah - Actress
  • Dr. James Hansen - Climate scientist
  • Paul Hawken - Entrepreneur, author
  • Randy Hayes - Founder, Rainforest Action Network
  • Dr. Edward Herman - Professor Emeritus, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
  • Naomi Klein - Author
  • David Korten - Author
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner - Author, The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right; Editor, TIKKUN magazine
  • Jerry Mander - Director, Intenrational Forum on Globalization
  • Kathy Mattea - Musician
  • Bill McKibben - Author, educator, founder - Step It Up
  • Richard L. Ottinger - Dean Emeritus, Pace Law School
  • Billy Parrish - Founder- Energy Action Coalition
  • David Naguib Pellow - board member, Greenpeace USA; author
  • Mike Roselle - Founder - Earth First!
  • Lorna Salzman - Writer, lecturer, organizer
  • Gus Speth - Author "The Bridge at the Edge of the World"; Dean, Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
  • Reverend Lennox Yearwood - President, Hip Hop Caucus

March 26, 2009: DC Rising Tide disrupts CTL conference in Washington, DC

Activists with DC Rising Tide interrupted an industry conference to denounce coal-to-liquids technologies. The protesters stood in the audience and gave loud speeches refuting the statements of executives from Chevron, CONSOL Energy, World Coal Institute, and World Petroleum Council. Displaying banners including "Coal kills" and "Renewable energy now," the activists called for an end to fossil fuels and for adoption of clean, renewable energy sources.[17]

Greenpeace activists hang banner at international climate meeting in DC on April 27, 2009.

April 27, 2009: Greenpeace activists hang banner across from the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC

Activists from Greenpeace USA hung a huge banner from a crane across the street from the State Department to urge action from Ministers of the 17 largest global emitters. The ministers are in DC to discuss climate change as part of the Major Economies Forum. The banner read, "Too Big To Fail: Stop Global Warming - Rescue the Planet." Seven activists were arrested.[18]



  1. Existing Generating Units in the United States by State, Company and Plant, 2005, U.S. Energy Information Agency
  2. Lydsey Layton, "Reliance on Coal Sullies 'Green the Capitol' Effort," Washington Post, April 21, 2007
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Lyndsey Layton, "Capitol Hill's polluting power plant resists green tide," Washington Post, April 26, 2007
  4. "How much coal is required to run a 100-watt lightbulb...?" How Stuff Works, accessed December 2008. According to this website, the typical 500 megawatt power plant burns 1.43 million tons of coal per year.
  5. Base Year 2002 Emissions Inventory Document for Washington, DC-MD-VA Annual PM2.5 NAA_12.14.07, Attachment A1, page 2, "Summary of Point Source Emissions: District of Columbia," Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Air Quality Files
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 "PM Standards Revision - 2006," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  7. "Health Impacts of Air Pollution from Washington, D.C. Power Plants," Clean Air Task Force, May 2002
  8. Dirty Air, Dirty Power: Mortality and Health Damage Due to Air Pollution from Power Plants, Conrad G. Schneider, Abt Associates, June 2004, sponsored by Clean Air Task Force; Synopsis
  9. 9.0 9.1 Jim Spellman and Andrea Koppel, "Effort to 'green' U.S. Capitol complicated by coal," CNN.com, May 11, 2007
  10. Jonathan Weisman, "Capitol to Buy Offsets in Bid to Go Green," Washington Post.com, November 5, 2007
  11. "Six Months of Progress: Green the Capitol," December 10, 2007
  12. "Pelosi and Reid Switch the Capitol Power Plant to 100% Gas," MarketWatch, 2/26/09
  13. "The Capitol Power Plant," Hill Rag, January 2006.
  14. "Coal to action," Gristmill, December 10, 2008
  15. Ted Nace, "Mean, old, and dirty: Climate youth activists target the Capitol Power Plant," Gristmill, December 24, 2008
  16. "Endorsing Organizations," Capitol Climate Action website, accessed February 1, 2009
  17. "DC Rising Tide Disrupts Coal-to-Liquids Conference," It's Getting Hot in Here, March 26, 2009.
  18. "It's a Beautiful Day for a Banner Hang!," Greenpeace USA, April 27, 2009.

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