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To green the Capitol, lawmakers follow tech titans

Members of Congress aiming to green the U.S. Capitol are following the lead of Silicon Valley.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Washington lawmakers aiming to green both the Capitol dome and the laws made beneath it are turning to Silicon Valley for inspiration while pledging to help renewable energy start-ups get off the ground.

Some Democrats in the House of Representatives fear U.S. policies aren't combating global warming quickly enough. But they hope that they can at least "green" the Capitol complex enough to call it the world's first carbon-neutral legislative body within the year.

"We're making a difference and we're going to change the world," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), speaking Monday at the Tech Museum of Innovation with sustainability leaders of high-tech companies including Google, Intel, Sun, and Adobe. "The question is, how can we come together?"

Beard, Lofgren, and Perry Plumart, Green the Capitol deputy director, learn about Adobe's "green" headquarters from Ted Ludwick, chief operating engineer.
House Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Beard, left, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), and Green the Capitol Deputy Director Perry Plumart, learn about Adobe's "green" headquarters from Ted Ludwick, the company's chief operating engineer. Elsa Wenzel/CNET

One way that clean tech start-ups hope for Congress to help is by extending renewable energy tax credits rejected by the Senate in the Energy Act of 2007. If the tax breaks expire at the end of the year, supporters fear that wind and solar start-ups will be unable to compete with polluting, fossil-fuel based energy sources.

Lofgren vowed to fight anew for the credits.

Following the discussion, she toured the campuses of Adobe, Bloom Energy, Xilinx, and Applied Materials as examples of "green" facilities that could serve as models for cutting the Capitol's energy consumption in half within the decade.

Inroads have been made since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer launched a Green the Capitol campaign in March 2007. Efforts include installing compact fluorescent bulbs and studying ways to light the dome more efficiently, purchasing carbon offsets, and introducing plant-based, biodegradable plastic forks in Congressional cafeterias.

Yet, some behind the Capitol-greening plan complain that, as with passing laws to help curb greenhouse gas emissions, lack of political will and bureaucratic red tape are hampering progress on the buildings.

Washington lawmakers appear to be split dramatically along party lines in their views of ecological woes. Among members of Congress, 95 percent of Democrats believe that human activity causes global warming, while only 13 percent of Republicans think the same, according to a National Journal poll from February 2007.

"The best thing for me to do is to talk about this in dollars and cents," House Chief Administrative Officer Daniel Beard explained of greening the Capitol's physical plants. And energy efficiency delivers the biggest bang for the buck.

A growing priority among tech firms is to green data centers, which consume 4 percent of the nation's energy by 2012, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Congressional offices, on the other hand, have not yet overhauled their server systems to improve efficiency.

"Every e-mail has a carbon footprint," said Subodh Bapat, vice president and chief engineer of Sun's eco-responsibility office. "Customers are banging down our doors to consume our energy efficient products."

Sun has redesigned its data centers from scratch and made its green technology efforts open source.

Yet, panelists agreed that efficiency is only the first step to lead the nation toward sustainability.

Bruce Klafter of Applied Materials and Steve Nguyen of Echelon. Most speakers declined to touch their bottled water, which Adobe and other tech companies are phasing out at their headquarters.
Bruce Klafter of Applied Materials and Steve Nguyen of Echelon. Most speakers declined to touch their bottled water, which Adobe and other tech companies are phasing out at their headquarters. Elsa Wenzel/CNET

"Green" efforts used to be just one aspect of business operations, said Dave Stangis, corporate responsibility director of Intel, which has pledged to cut its energy use one-third by 2010. "Now it's the business of business."

"We're not going to conserve our way out of this crisis," said Google green energy czar Bill Weihle, who drove to the event in a 100 mile-per-gallon, plug-in hybrid company car. "We need to be replacing polluting energy with renewables."

To that end, the search giant's headquarters has 1.6 megawatts of solar panels and builds its own data centers and servers., meanwhile, is aiming to make renewable energy cheaper than coal.

Semiconductor equipment maker Applied Materials is adding 1.9 megawatts of solar power to its campus and is creating 900 jobs in solar alone, according to Bruce Klafter, head of corporate responsibility.

The costs of solar power will drop if companies offer innovative financing plans, said San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, whose plan to green his city includes halving energy consumption per capita and creating 25,000 clean tech jobs.

"We need to do with solar what we did with the cell phone," he said. "This is already happening in Silicon Valley. We're going to demonstrate for the rest of the country."

Lofgren, Beard, and Rep. Mike Honda later toured Adobe's headquarters, lauding it as an example of what should be done to improve office buildings in Washington and around the country.

Adobe's three towers achieved the highest rating of platinum under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards in 2006. Initial energy efficiency improvements of $1.2 million have already paid for themselves. Up to 90 percent of Adobe's waste never reaches a landfill, which will increase to 95 percent by the end of the year, according to Randal Knox III, senior director of global facilities. The company also encourages telecommuting and public transportation.

"This is impressive," said Honda, a Democrat representing Silicon Valley.

Lofgren and Beard plan to urge the Capitol architect to step up to make changes similar to what Adobe has done, such as using low-toxic cleaning products and installing smart irrigation systems.

Other progress toward greening the Capitol so far includes the purchase of carbon offsets worth 30,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. In cafeterias, fair-trade coffee and local food is served, and vending machines are Energy Star certified. House office supplies use only recycled paper, and carpets are low in toxic chemicals.

Using Flash 9 software, Adobe's headquarters displays real-time data about electrical use.
Using Flash 9 software, Adobe's headquarters displays real-time data about electrical use. Elsa Wenzel/CNET