Expanded Funding for Clean Energy & Zero Waste Programs Needed in DC

Testimony of Lara Levison
Sierra Club DC Chapter
Budget Hearing for the Department of Energy and the Environment
Committee on Transportation and the Environment
March 29, 2022


Councilmember Cheh, thank you for the opportunity to testify at this budget hearing on the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and for your strong leadership on environmental issues. My name is Lara Levison and I am the Energy Committee chair of the Sierra Club DC Chapter. The Sierra Club is the nation’s oldest and largest environmental advocacy group. We have chapters in all 50 states. The DC chapter has about 3,000 dues-paying members.

We are mainly pleased with the budget proposed for DOEE in the Mayor’s Proposed FY23 Budget and Financial Plan. We appreciate that DOEE is among the most competent and mission-driven agencies in the DC government. We do have some concerns about funding for certain zero waste initiatives as well as comments on the budget for several specific programs.


Battery Stewardship and Donation and Reuse Programs

We were pleased to hear during the DC Environmental Network/Casey Trees DOEE Budget Briefing last Friday that DOEE has included FY23 funding to support the staffing of the Battery Stewardship and Donation and Reuse Programs. Moving forward, we seek to ensure that the Battery Stewardship Program is able to launch with no additional delays[1] and welcome the opportunity to comment on the battery stewardship plan, along with other environmental groups, before it is approved. We seek to ensure that District residents will be able to have convenient access to battery drop-off locations in all Wards. Likewise, we look forward to learning more about the contours of the Donation and Reuse Program and to being given an opportunity to comment on its plan in the near future.

Serve-on-Request Requirements

We salute the DOEE staff in the Watershed Protection Division who developed the DOEE’s education and outreach initiatives related to the 2020 Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act’s requirements for food service entities and food ordering apps to provide plastic utensils and other “disposable accessory food ware” items only upon the request of a customer. The Sierra Club worked closely with the DOEE team on developing an education and outreach plan and continues to support these efforts, including by distributing DOEE flyers to District restaurants. Moving forward, we urge DOEE to actively enforce the District’s serve-on-request requirements for both food ordering apps and restaurants since takeout orders continue to include unrequested items, creating unnecessary trash.     

Grants for Reusable Food Service Ware

Likewise, Sierra Club was pleased to work with the Watershed Protection Division—including sharing our expertise on reusable food service ware—as DOEE sets up a grants program for reusable food service ware, another 2020 Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act requirement. We were dismayed to learn that funding for reusable food ware had not been included in the Mayor’s FY23 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan.

The Transportation and the Environment Committee’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Report explains the vital role reusable food service ware plays in preventing waste[2] and made clear that funding for staff and grants was foreseen for at least four years.[3] We urge DOEE and the Counsel to ensure that both staff and recurring nonpersonal funding is included not only in the FY23 budget, but in future budgets as well.

The District, as we all know, continues to struggle to meet its waste diversion goals.[4] At the same time, progressive jurisdictions are moving beyond waste diversion measures to embrace waste prevention measures. There is likely no stronger waste prevention measure than replacing the mountains of single-use food service ware used by District food service entities with reusable food service ware. That’s because, sadly, much of the District’s “compostable” or “recyclable” food service ware is thrown in a trash bag and later incinerated or landfilled.

Recent policy proposals foresee a future where reusable takeout container services operate as a government utility—providing the pickup, washing, sanitation and delivery of reusable takeout containers—to create local green government jobs, reduce trash hauling costs and prevent waste from being created. Today’s mini-grant program has the potential to grow into such a greenhouse-gas-reducing, job-creating, waste-prevention dynamo. California is already moving in this direction with its proposed legislation to provide widespread dishwashing capacity to public schools and community colleges.[5]

This is the direction we should be headed, by adequately funding the DOEE “Ditch the Disposables” program. We urge Council to at least double FY22’s modest allocation and confirm continuity in staffing this program. The alternative would condemn the District to remain mired in a regressive and harmful throw-away model.   

Because reusable food service ware holds so much potential, we also urge Council to amend the 2020 Zero Waste Omnibus Amendment Act—once restaurants recover from the Covid-19 pandemic—to re-introduce the requirement for reusable food service ware for on-site dining, as was included in the 2019 version of the bill. We also urge Council to require reusable food service ware in entertainment and sports venues. The District would join a growing number of jurisdictions that recognizes that reducing our use of these products not only cuts waste, but is also a vital component of our greenhouse gas reduction strategy.

Putting an End to Plastic Bags

Over ten years ago, the District implemented a five cent bag fee on single-use plastic bags. DOEE collects more than $2 million annually from the bag fees which it uses to fund a series of worthy environmental programs[6]. Perversely, this means that the true cost of funding these programs is injecting at least 40 million plastic bags annually into our waste stream.[7]

Single-use film bags cannot be placed in the District’s blue curbside recycling bins. Recyclable  items placed in one of these bags also cannot be recycled, and these bags harm recycling sorting machines when they slip through. With plastic production projected to double over the next twenty years and triple by 2050, we should be adopting policies that curtail plastic use rather than encourage its ongoing production. We therefore urge the Council to join states like New Jersey and New York in moving to ban single-use plastic grocery bags. At the same time, we urge Council to allocate funds from other sources to ensure continuity of the worthy environmental programs currently funded through the bag fee.

We can suggest one potential alternative funding source. DC stands to net millions in unpaid traffic ticket fines from drivers in DC, Maryland, and Virginia if it pursues and implements options for holding those drivers accountable for their traffic violations[8]. Using revenue like this to drive sustainability and clean water goals, while eliminating the plastic bag fee by fully banning plastic bags, would drive two of the city's goals at once: Vision Zero and Zero Waste.


The Mayor’s budget has allocated $18.5M for a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge to Kingman Island. We request clarification as to the plans, drawings, or ideas that went into the discussion of a future bridge. The $8.9M reduction in funding to watershed protection is substantial. Please clarify which programs or projects will be affected.

The Mayor’s capital improvement plan has allocated $60M to design and construct a new multi-level indoor sports complex at RFK Stadium. The Sierra Club DC Chapter has not yet taken a position on the Mayor’s proposal for an indoor sports facility. However, if the capital improvement plan proceeds as budgeted, the agencies involved in this capital project are listed to be the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of General Services. We request that funding be allocated for DOEE to have a defining role in this process given the site’s proximity to the Anacostia River, the fact that most of it is situated in the 100- and 500-year floodplain, and the project’s importance to and impact on the overall health of the watershed.

The creation of a five-year capital improvement plan provides an even greater impetus for the development of a District-wide (and potentially even a multi-jurisdictional) comprehensive plan or framework that would guide and coordinate development projects along District waterways. This plan is much needed as evidenced by the different agencies involved in or leading projects that will affect District waterways including the redevelopment of Kenilworth Park (once the site is remediated), the demolition and redevelopment of the RFK Stadium site, and the proposed bridge from the arboretum to Kenilworth Park.

We applaud DOEE for following the CDC’s updated blood lead reference value (BLRV) from 5.0 μg/dL to 3.5 μg/dL. There remains uncertainty in the number of lead service lines requiring replacement to protect DC citizens from this well known and highly toxic contaminant. Every year that contamination occurs results in more children whose neural function, mental development and quality of life will be forever diminished. This is an area of the budget where every dollar makes a difference in public health outcomes. Councilmember Cheh, your recommendation for an independent cost estimate for this essential remediation should not delay fully budgeting this program even with the existing uncertainties. This program should always be considered for additional funding whenever it is available. DC can not overemphasize budgeting for this program.


To achieve the District’s decarbonization goals, as laid out in the Clean Energy DC Plan, DOEE’s energy programs must continue to drive these key principles forward:

  • reduce energy consumption by increasing energy efficiency;
  • decarbonize the energy supply by increasing renewable energy resources and improving demand management and energy storage;
  • electrify the building and transportation sectors, rapidly winding down the use of fossil fuels in these sectors; and
  • pursue energy justice, ensuring that the District’s most vulnerable residents receive top priority in this transition and that they can access affordable energy and the health benefits of efficient, green housing.

 Building Energy Performance Standards

Buildings account for 71% of all greenhouse gasses in the District.[9] To reduce emissions from buildings, DC’s Building Energy and Performance Standards (BEPS) program requires that owners of large buildings improve their energy efficiency. We support robust funding for DOEE to implement BEPS, including $35 million for the Affordable Housing Retrofit Accelerator, created to help owners of multifamily affordable housing buildings comply with BEPS. DOEE has funding to reach out to houses of worship and senior care communities as well, offering no-cost energy audits as a first and essential step for improving energy efficiency.

Councilmember Cheh, the Sierra Club recommends that you increase the BEPS budget to include incentives for owners of large buildings to electrify all their systems rather than installing new gas systems. It is imperative that energy efficiency upgrades conducted to comply with BEPS also move our large buildings away from the use of fossil fuels. For example, installation of new, higher-efficiency gas boilers may enable building owners to achieve compliance with BEPS in the first compliance cycle--but these new gas systems could remain in place for several decades, hampering the District’s ability to transition off the use of methane gas as is necessary to achieve our climate goals.

The Sierra Club is concerned that the implementation of BEPS in DC government buildings is severely behind schedule. Although the Department of General Services still has not completed and released its Strategic Energy Management Plan (SEMP), which is expected to provide the roadmap for improving energy efficiency in DC government buildings and complying with BEPS, we have heard that the cost of implementation through several compliance cycles could be around $300 million. While this is a significant sum, complying with BEPS will reduce energy expenditures and save taxpayers money for decades to come. Also, improvements in building energy efficiency will create a more comfortable environment in DC’s schools, recreation centers, and government buildings for school children, teachers, government workers, and all community members who use these buildings.

Therefore, it is essential that the Council provide robust funding in the DGS budget for BEPS implementation. DOEE is responsible for the implementation of BEPS in all non-governmental buildings and should not be burdened with the funding or implementation of BEPS for DC government buildings.

Councilmember Cheh, the Sierra Club will raise these issues in more detail in the Department of General Services (DGS) oversight hearing, and we urge you to coordinate with Councilmember Robert White and the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities to ensure that BEPS is fully implemented across all building types covered by the program.

Building Electrification

The Transportation and Evnrioment’s Committee’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Report called for DOEE to explore strategies to cost-effectively transition buildings from fossil fuel heating systems to clean electric pumps.[10] Noting that DC cannot achieve carbon neutrality without transitioning away from using fossil fuel combustion to heat buildings and power appliances, the committee report stated:

 DOEE should explore and pursue strategies to promote electrification in buildings where it can be performed most cost-effectively, such as buildings with existing ductwork where only the gas or oil furnace needs to be switched to a heat pump. In the residential sector, buildings housing low- and moderate-income residents should be prioritized. Specifically, we encourage DOEE to implement a pilot program that provides a rebate for fossil fuel furnaces or boilers that are replaced with a heat pump, split between the HVAC contractor and the building owner, to provide both parties an incentive to replace fossil fuel heating systems with clean electric heat pumps. A smaller rebate could be provided for replacements of fossil fuel water heaters, which can be replaced cost-effectively in many cases. DOEE should also consider how larger buildings, such as churches, office buildings, and schools, could be incorporated into such a program, as they would require larger rebates to make the replacements affordable. This strategy will start electrifying the District by starting with properties that are the most cost effective. The Committee also encourages DOEE to undertake a public education campaign targeted at contractors and retailers selling large appliances, such as boilers, furnaces, and stoves, about the benefits of electrification. Many homeowners and developers rely on contractors and retailers to guide them on which appliances to buy for their home; it is the Committee’s understanding that, despite the affordability and environmental benefits of electric boilers, furnaces, and other appliances, many contractors and retailers do not typically recommend these products to the average consumer. The Committee believes that DOEE could help transition many homes from fuel combustion to electric appliances simply through educating contractors and retailers on their benefits.

 The Sierra Club fully agrees with this Committee that DOEE should initiate an electrification program. We believe it should focus on low- and moderate-income households and include both rental housing and homeowners. DOEE has not initiated a home electrification program. The DC Sustainable Utility (DCSEU) has created a small Low-Income Decarbonization Pilot. The Sierra Club applauds DOEE and DCSEU for this program but we believe DOEE’s building electrification efforts should focus on homes that can be most cost-effectively electrified. The effort should be scaled up significantly, covering far more homes and with substantial outreach about both the benefits of the program and the health threat of burning fossil fuels in our homes. The Sierra Club calls on the Council to provide funding to DOEE for a building electrification program.

Solar for All

The Sierra Club strongly supports continued robust funding for the Solar for All program. Since its inception in 2016, the program has been a core component for furthering the District’s goals to both combat the climate crisis and promote environmental justice. It assists in achieving our aggressive targets for generating solar energy within the District and provides critical relief for the disproportionate energy cost burden borne by low-income households, through participation in community solar projects or through the free installation of solar systems on individual homes.

As we noted in our oversight testimony, we are extremely concerned that Pepco, whether through incompetence or self-interested obstructionism, is failing to distribute accrued electricity bill credits to Solar for All’s low-income beneficiaries. We applaud the Attorney General and Office of the People’s Counsel for the complaint they recently filed with the Public Service Commission about Pepco’s pattern of systemic violations of DC law on solar energy, including illegally denying payments to 6,000 Solar for All customers.[11] We continue to urge DOEE to weigh in forcefully with the Public Service Commission as well.

Energy Affordability Division

The Sierra Club strongly supports the budget and activities of the newly-formed Energy Affordability Division, including the Weatherization Assistance Program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), assistance with water utility bills, and remediation of lead and mold. We recognize that much of this funding comes from federal sources. To the extent that federal funds fall short of the needs in the District, we encourage the use of local funds to close the gaps. No DC resident should be forced to live without heating, cooling, or water. Nor should any DC resident be forced to live with lead or mold contamination. 

 Energy Efficient Appliances

 Councilmember Cheh, thank you for your leadership in passing the Energy Efficiency Standards Amendment Act of 2020, which the Sierra Club vigorously supported, and in obtaining funding in the FY22 budget for implementation. Strong appliance standards reduce energy and water use, save money for consumers, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We were pleased to hear that DOEE has hired a staff person who started yesterday (March 28) to be responsible for enforcement of the appliance efficiency standards.

 Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the DOEE budget.

[1] The requirement to develop a battery stewardship plan has been postponed to January 1, 2023.

[2] p. 70, Committee on Transportation and Environment Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Report at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bbd09f3d74562c7f0e4bb10/t/60dcc163460aee56e1faf522/1625080164706/T%26E+FY22+budget+draft+report.pdf. “Disposable food service ware, such as cups, utensils, and takeout containers, represents a major portion of single-use items in the District, and is among the most commonly found items at beach cleanups. The staggering amount of waste produced by disposable food service ware has become especially apparent to District residents eating takeout at home during the pandemic. . . .The legislation establishes a grant or rebate program at DOEE to support reductions in the use of disposable food service ware.

[3] Ibid. “This expanded food service ware program will require a new program staffer, as well as nonpersonal funding for grants and administration and outreach. Therefore, the Committee increases the budget for (2080) Watershed Protection by $344,000 in FY 2022 and $1,387,000 over the four-year plan. These funds will cover 1 additional FTE and $265,000 in recurring nonpersonal funds. (emphasis in the original).

[4] The District’s goal is to divert 80% of its waste from landfills and incinerators by 2032. Its latest citywide waste diversion rate is a paltry 16.11% according to the CY 2018 Annual Waste Diversion Report available here:  https://dpw.dc.gov/node/1210967.

[7] Forty million bags annually is likely an underestimate, since only a portion of the five-cent fee goes into the Anacostia River CleanUp and Protection Fund, and we have not reached full compliance with the bag fee.

[8] See, e.g.,“Maryland and Virginia drivers owe D.C. more than $370 million in outstanding traffic and parking fines,” Washington Post, October 4, 2020 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/maryland-and-virginia-drivers-owe-dc-more-than-370-million-in-outstanding-traffic-and-parking-fines/2020/10/04/c11a1df6-030c-11eb-b7ed-141dd88560ea_story.html.

[10] Fiscal Year 2022 Committee Budget Report, Committee on Transportation & Environment, July 1, 2021.