The U.S. House of Representatives counts on a WWU alum to keep the lights on -- and he's switching to compact fluorescents
Story by Mary Lane Gallagher
If Dan Beard (’66) ever takes you on a tour of his House, don’t be surprised if he spends a lot of time talking trash.
Since becoming Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007, Beard has spearheaded the Green the Capitol initiative, a massive effort to make the nation’s largest legislative body friendlier to the Earth.
As CAO, Beard is the non-partisan executive in charge of most of the behind-the-scenes logistics that keep the House running, from computers that process more than 1 million constituent e-mails each day, to electricity to light the Capitol Dome, to food for late-night budget sessions.
But these days, Beard and his staff must also protect the planet while running the House.
“The Speaker has made a commitment to running this institution in a different way,” says Beard.
So far, they’ve reduced the “carbon footprint” of the House’s operations by 74 percent. And Beard’s staff has taken on the challenge of cutting the House’s energy consumption in half by 2017.
But Green the Capitol has already changed the way the House eats, cleans and gets around.
With about 8 million square feet of office space, the House is massive enough that aggressive greening efforts by themselves can keep thousands of tons of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
But lawmakers also hope the Green the Capitol program can provide an eloquent example for other large institutions to reduce their impact on the Earth.
“We’re slowly trying to change the ethics of how we do business here,” says Beard, who recently road tested an all-electric truck he may add to the House’s delivery fleet.
“All of our electricity comes from wind power projects,” he says. “All of our heating and cooling needs are met by natural gas as opposed to coal.”
They’ve also replaced 10,000 incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, saving 1.1 million kilowatt hours of electricity.
And you won’t find plastic or Styrofoam in House cafeterias anymore. All food containers and utensils – even disposable water bottles – are now compostable. More than 880,000 tons of waste was diverted from landfills to compost facilities last year.
In all, the House has reduced its carbon output by more than 91 tons so far, Beard says.
Their original goal was to reduce the House’s carbon output to nothing, which they achieved with the help of purchasing carbon offset credits. But purchasing credits, which fund efforts elsewhere to remove carbon from the atmosphere, can be controversial because it’s hard to verify that they’re really making a difference. Plus, without a widely accepted, formal definition of “carbon neutral,” it’s a difficult standard to prove, says Jeff Ventura, the House’s spokesperson.
So while the House has shelved the goal of going carbon neutral – and dropped plans to buy more carbon offsets – they’re going to press on toward the goal of cutting energy consumption in half by 2017.
It’s a formidable job, given the scale of the House’s operations and the age and size of its buildings. And the task can get really tricky when, as Beard puts it, “I have 441 bosses: 435 Members of Congress and six delegates from territories. And you don’t get here unless you’re a Type A, take-charge kind of personality.”
Try telling lawmakers from the Coal Belt, for example, that the Capitol Power Plant should use only natural gas instead of a mixture of gas and coal to heat and cool the House.
And the formidable cost of designing and installing energy efficient lighting for the Capitol Dome raised some eyebrows, though Beard’s staff estimates the project will reduce energy costs by 75 percent.
“Politics is the blood sport of this institution,” Beard says.
“I think everyone would agree that they want to decrease the impact we have on the environment and operate in an environmentally sensitive manner.
“Sometimes,” he says diplomatically, “people disagree with the approach.”
But making sustainable living part of the common experience of working at the U.S. Capitol can have far-reaching effects, Beard thinks.
That’s why that trash is so important.
“Everyone who comes here is touched by the greening movement through our food service operation,” he says. “Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, we all meet there and we all do the same thing every day. If you touch people enough, you’re going to change attitudes and opinions.
“That, to me,” he says, “is one of the most interesting things.”