The District of Columbia, also known as the city of Washington, is located on the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia. The city is situated between the Potomac’s first rapids in the north and the beginnings of its tidal estuary to the south. The District’s land rises from the banks of the Potomac River and its tributary, the Anacostia River, to low hills in the north and east. The city’s climate is temperate, but summer days can exceed 100°F, and the rivers contribute to high humidity throughout the year. The capital district was created by an Act of Congress in July 1790. It is under the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress and is not a part of any state. Although the District of Columbia occupies only about 68 square miles, including water, its population is greater than that of either Wyoming or Vermont, and its population density is greater than that of any U.S. state.
Most of the energy used in the District of Columbia is consumed by the commercial sector, which includes federal buildings.
The city of Washington has few energy resources. It is overwhelmingly an energy consumer, not an energy producer. Nevertheless, in total, the city consumes less energy than any state except Vermont. Per capita, the District uses less energy than two-thirds of U.S. states. Nearly two-thirds of the energy used in the District is consumed by the commercial sector, which includes the federal buildings, museums, and universities that contribute to the city’s commercial activity.
The District of Columbia leads the nation’s cities in the number of Energy Star-certified buildings.
Solar energy is the District of Columbia’s primary renewable resource. The density of city development provides many rooftops that can accommodate solar installations. In February 2009, the District Department of the Environment introduced the Renewable Energy Incentive Program, which offers financial incentives designed to encourage the use of renewable solar generation by both residents and businesses. By the end of 2015, there were more than 2,100 solar energy systems in the city. One of the largest solar panel installations in the District of Columbia is located on the roof of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Forrestal headquarters building. The panels generate about 230 megawatthours of electricity each year.
In 2005, the District of Columbia adopted a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) that has been amended several times since. A 2016 RPS amendment requires that 50% of all retail electricity sales in the District must come from renewable sources by 2032. The standard requires that no less than 5% of retail electricity sales under the RPS must be generated from solar resources. To help reach that goal, the city plans to install solar systems on more than 6,000 low-income homes annually. The standard applies to both the investor-owned electric utility that serves the District of Columbia and to any retail suppliers. Qualifying technologies include solar thermal and PV technologies, landfill gas, wind, biomass, hydroelectric, geothermal electric, municipal solid waste, tidal energy, wave energy, ocean thermal, and fuel cells using renewable fuels.
Washington leads the nation’s cities in its number of Energy Star-certified buildings, surpassing the much larger city of Los Angeles for the first time in 2014. An Energy Star-certified building meets strict energy performance standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and uses less energy, costs less to operate, and produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than comparable buildings. Many of Washington’s federal buildings are Energy Star-certified.
In 2012, the only utility-owned electricity generation facilities in the District were retired from service. The two small, petroleum-fired power plants had been used for electricity generation only a few hours per year, typically in periods of high demand. District residents now receive nearly all their electricity from outside the city through the distribution system of the local electric utility, which is part of the PJM regional power grid. In 2015, the only electricity generated within the District came from the GSA’s Central Heating and Refrigeration Plant, which is fueled with natural gas, and from solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on commercial and residential rooftops. The Capitol Power Plant, which provided electricity to two dozen buildings on Capitol Hill from 1910 until 1951, has received local permits to construct two natural gas-fired cogeneration units. If built, the new units would allow the plant, which produces steam and chilled water, to produce electricity for on-site use. The new units would use fuel oil as a backup fuel.
More than seven-tenths of retail sales of electricity in the District of Columbia are made to the city’s commercial sector. Most of the rest of the city’s electricity is consumed by the residential sector. With its small population, the District of Columbia consumes less total electricity than all but five states, but the high commercial sector consumption places the District among the top 10 states in per capita electricity consumption.
As with total energy consumption, natural gas consumption in the District of Columbia is higher in the commercial sector than in any other sector in the city. Natural gas is used to provide heating and cooling for many federal buildings, including the GSA’s Central Heating and Refrigeration Plant, which creates steam and chilled cooling water for about 100 federal buildings in the District. Natural gas is also the primary fuel at the Capitol Power Plant, which provides heating and cooling to the U.S. Capitol complex. The residential sector, where about three-fifths of households use natural gas for home heating, is the second-largest natural gas-consuming sector in the city.
District consumers did not have access to natural gas until 1931. For more than 80 years before that, manufactured gas was locally produced from coal and petroleum.A mixture of natural and manufactured gas was used from 1931 until 1946. After that, manufactured gas was produced intermittently during periods of peak gas demand until the mid-1980s. Demolition of the city’s last gas-manufacturing plant was completed in 1986.
Natural gas is supplied to the District by a single natural gas distribution utility that services the city and some surrounding suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. No interstate natural gas pipelines enter the District. The utility’s local distribution pipelines bring natural gas into the city from interstate pipelines in Maryland and Virginia. Historically, most of the natural gas entering the District of Columbia came from the south and west through Virginia, but increasing amounts of natural gas are coming to the District through Maryland from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale.
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