How Campus Works: Water and Power
How does Georgetown keep its lights on and taps flowing?
Author: Mark Agard, SFS ’23, & Common Home Editor
Students and faculty rarely worry about where their water and power comes from, but ensuring constant electricity and water access to thousands of people on campus is not a simple task. Let’s take a closer look at how Georgetown keeps the lights and water on for everyone.
Tap Water at Georgetown University
How often do you use tap water in a day? Between showering, drinking, cooking, and everything else, the average American uses more than 80 gallons of water a day.
The Georgetown Office of Strategic Communications noted that Georgetown University uses a staggering 200 million gallons per year. Managing such volume requires a labyrinthian system of pipes, heaters, and pumps for every single drop.
The process starts with the water intakes at Great and Little Falls in Maryland. There, water from the Potomac River feeds into the Washington aqueduct, which carries it into the city. The aqueduct is run by the US Army Corps of Engineers, who provide water to institutions like the DC Water and Sewage Authority (DC WASA). DC WASA then delivers and sells the water to customers like Georgetown University.
The water Georgetown buys from DC WASA arrives from five different pipes on the edge of campus. From these five feeds, the university distributes the water to campus buildings via several loops of piping. There are multiple feeds and loops to ensure that there is always reliable water access, and water can be rerouted if something goes wrong with a particular set of pipes or a water feed.
So, what happens if something goes wrong? The first step of any water problem is to identify its location. Ideally, workers schedule a planned repair, so they don’t have to turn off water. However, some issues are too urgent to wait, and workers must start immediately. These are called unplanned repairs.
Next, flow is shut off to the problem area. The repair itself can be as simple as fixing a leaky valve. However, the specifics of the problem and its location can make things a lot more complicated. Sometimes, the university must even hire outside contractors who can handle tricky underground issues.
Even something as seemingly-routine as reliable water access takes an immense amount of effort to maintain, on-campus or off. It’s important to acknowledge that our tap water comes directly from local systems and only through the cooperation of federal, municipal, and private organizations. Though we have the privilege of treating tap water as routine, we should still appreciate it and be mindful of our usage.
Where does Georgetown University get its electricity?
The university has an extensive history of policies and projects that aspire to reduce the campus’ energy footprint. Students can observe some of the university’s prior efforts around sustainable energy, such as solar panels on the campus Intercultural Center. However, many smaller projects, like the solar panels, have been shut down in favor of more comprehensive, less piecemeal approaches.
Recently, the university moved to source all electricity for its Main and Medical campuses sustainably, rather than source its energy from separate and of smaller renewable energy projects that only supplement traditional power generation.
An example of one of these larger projects was a proposed solar plant in Southeastern Maryland. The plant, MD Solar 1, was set to generate 32.5 MW of electricity – enough to meet half of campus consumption. However, the permit for the plant was rejected by the Maryland Department of Environment, partly out of concern for the ecological effects of the plant’s construction. Among the more severe of those ecological concerns was that the proposed plant would have required clearing a valuable woodland ecosystem.
The university found an alternative way to power the campus sustainably. In October 2020, Georgetown signed a 15-year agreement to purchase two-thirds of its electricity from 11 existing solar power plants between D.C and New Jersey.
The remaining third of electricity is still green: Georgetown requires Renewable Energy Certificates for all electricity purchases to power the Main and Medical campuses. Energy certificates like these are commonly used to ensure that buildings have a minimized energy footprint. In other words, all energy used to power the Main and Medical campuses is green, whether directly through the 11 plants, or indirectly through the purchase of green energy.
Sustainably powering the campus has taken decades of iterative progress, at-times ineffective projects, and now relies on power plants more than a hundred miles away from D.C. Even still, it can and has been done. The amenities we’ve come to expect without a second thought are worth a closer look: they show us that most every feature of modern life requires an interconnectedness far more complex than meets the eye. We shouldn’t take any part of our relationship with each other or nature for granted, because even seemingly mundane systems can have a world of impact.