University President John J. DeGioia announced in 2008 that Georgetown would undertake an ambitious commitment to halve the university’s carbon footprint by 2020.
Is this sustainability plan well on its way to realization or is it merely a pipedream?
Karen Frank, vice president for facilities and student housing, minces no words when asked about the prospects of Georgetown meeting this goal.
“We’re doing extremely well,” she said.
Over the past several years, environmental sustainability has begun to occupy an increasingly large slice of the university’s institutional priorities. A sustainability advisory committee, comprised of students and senior-level administrators, was formed in 2007, and a sustainability director was hired in the same year. In February, DeGioia signed the Sustainable Campus Charter in Davos, Switzerland, joining 25 universities worldwide in pledging to sustainable development practices.
But on the Hilltop, it has been a lot more than talk. As of fiscal year 2009, Georgetown’s emissions per square foot had dropped by 16.4 percent since 2006 – an average of 5.2 percent per year.
Xavier Rivera, the director of utilities and energy programs, cites boosted operational efficiency at the university’s heating and cooling plant and a heightened sense of environmental awareness among members of the Georgetown community as key reasons accounting for the emissions reduction.
Challenges to continued success, though, persist. As the university celebrates the 40th annual Earth Day this week, Frank notes the perennial challenge of getting faculty to commit to “green” behavior. Rivera says that large-scale renewable energy use at Georgetown in the short term remains unlikely. And Kristin Ng (MSB ’11), the president of EcoAction, points out the difficulty of maintaining campus-wide engagement and the challenge of consistently choosing the most sustainable course of action, even when it might not be the most cost effective option.
Increasing operational efficiency at the campus’ heating and cooling plant has been one of the most crucial priorities over the past few years, Frank said. A thorough assessment of the plant’s equipment was conducted, followed by re-training staff to use equipment according to efficiency priority. According to Rivera, these planning and efficiency efforts have paid great dividends in lowering costs and emissions. This was never clearer than during the unprecedented snowstorms in January. Due to extensive planning, Rivera said the university was able to meet 100 percent of the demand, though Frank said staffing problems cropped up.
“The biggest challenge was transporting people, and so the staff of the plant had to live on campus. You have to have 24/7 coverage at the plant, so many members of the staff stayed on campus for a week,” Frank said.
The plant, located adjacent to McDonough Arena, serves the entire main campus. An electricity-powered chiller cools water to service the campus’ air conditioning and refrigeration. Heating is provided by steam, fueled by either natural gas or number-two ultra-low sulfur diesel along with electricity for selected machinery.
In fiscal year 2009, Georgetown’s total emissions, measured in metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalents, totaled 91,123 MTCDE. Of this total, 65.43 percent was electricity, 32.64 percent was natural gas and 0.55 percent was oil number two. The small remaining amount consisted of fleet diesel and fleet gasoline. Rivera said that strict federal and district regulations limit what types of fuel can be used.
Georgetown is both a duel-fuel and interruptible facility, meaning that the university can be “interrupted” by local one-fuel facilities due to demand or other issues that require a change of fuel. For Georgetown, this means switching to its secondary fuel, oil number two, and Rivera said that the change happens frequently during winter months.
“For us, [switching fuels] is not always a choice if we want to make a financial choice or an equipment availability choice, but it’s a choice that depends on a lot of things: weather, equipment availability and supply,” Rivera said.
Strategies to reduce costs and emissions have been implemented, Rivera said, including the off-peak hours use of the plant’s thermal storage tank to cool chilled water.
Renewable energy has become the new frontier of sustainable energy, but Georgetown was one of the first in the game when it constructed, with federal grant money, a solar array on the Intercultural Center roof in 1984. Twenty-six years later, the panels continue operation, though Rivera says they have “surpassed their useful life by quite a few years.”
The solar panels power only 6 percent of the ICC and 0.18 percent of the entire campus, but Frank said that the university is evaluating the possibility of installing additional solar panels on flat roofs on campus, a new trend in solar technology.
“We have a desire to do more [in solar energy], and we are studying the feasibility of it. We have had some companies in to look at our flat roofs, which are widely prevalent in institutions, for additional solar panels,’ Frank said.
While large-scale wind energy is not practical for the university, officials are considering the installation of wind spires – scaled-down versions of larger wind turbines.
“[Rivera] has the idea to incorporate a few of these, kind of like artwork, and use the energy from these wind spires to power exterior lighting on campus,” Frank said.
The introduction of biodiesel blend-powered GUTS buses, which are 80 percent petroleum and 20 percent biodiesel fuel, have also contributed to lowered net emissions, Frank said.
**A Wider Trend**
Georgetown’s sustainability initiative is only one of many in the nation’s capital currently aimed at cutting carbon emissions.
Daniel Barry, a senior policy analyst for climate in the District’s Office of Policy and Sustainability, works with agency, community and institutional leaders to execute climate actions plans, monitor progress and assist in implementation. The city’s target is perhaps the most ambitious: an 80 percent emissions reduction from the base totals calculated in 2006.
Barry said that D.C. is quietly leading the charge in sustainability.
“I think D.C. can take credit for some forward-looking energy policy. We have great programs in place through the building code and the Green Building Act,” Barry said.
Close attention has been paid over the past few years to building energy use, which in 2006 accounted for 75 percent of D.C.’s total emissions. Barry said that newly required “benchmarking” for buildings of a certain size will help lay the groundwork for overall reduction. But the greatest challenge, he says, comes from already-standing, inefficient structures.
“There are programs evolving to provide assistance for existing buildings to replace appliances and heating and cooling systems. We’re trying to think of ways to further encourage energy efficiency through federal grants and other mechanisms. Green roofs are another possibility,” he said.
In 2009, D.C. had the fourth-highest total number of LEED-certified buildings in the United States. Power purchasing agreements and “green loans” are other progressive measures in the developing stages. Large-scale renewable energy use may not be possible due to geographic constraints, but Barry did cite increasing individual initiative in using renewable energy sources in small doses.
At The George Washington University, the sustainability outlook appears similar to the one at Georgetown. In 2007, University President Steven Knapp launched a Presidential Task Force on Sustainability, ushering in an era of emissions reduction and active environmental awareness.
Douglas Spengel, manager of the Energy and Environment Office at GWU, said that a reduction in overall equipment use and the effectiveness of an on-campus sustainability competition, “Eco Challenge,” have contributed to a 5.4 percent emissions reduction from purchased electricity between fiscal years 2008 and 2009. Spengel said there has been an ongoing shift away from oil to natural gas power as well.
Renewal energy is, like at Georgetown, an area for high attention and development.
“[Yesterday], GWU announced its commitment to move forward with a solar thermal hot water heating system on several residence halls,” Spengel said.
The College Sustainability Report Card is one of the few comparative metrics for sustainability among U.S. universities. Both GWU and Georgetown received overall “B” grades in 2010, a rise for Georgetown from its “B-” grade in 2009. The report card uses a wide variety of criteria in its assessment, including more indirect considerations like endowment transparency and shareholder engagement. Georgetown did receive an “A” in climate change and energy.
Rivera questioned the report card’s usefulness in accurately measuring and comparing sustainability efforts.
“When you add other criteria like they do, how does that really affect your performance in energy?” Rivera said.
Ng, the president of EcoAction, said she cannot help marveling at the rise of student engagement, noting that EcoAction is a different organization than the one she joined her first year at Georgetown.
“When I was a freshman, EcoAction was basically a few people sitting around a table in the [Intercultural Center],” she said. “Now we have 20 to 30 very active members and a lot of young leadership, which is really impressive for a niche organization.”
Ng said the organization dabbles in advocating environmental policy issues, but concentrates most of its efforts in educating members of the community and in promoting green behavior. For two of its largest efforts, participation in the intercollegiate “Recyclemania,” a 10-week recycling competition among almost 300 universities, and the “Switch It Off” challenge between residence halls, EcoAction draws upon the time-honored spirit of competition.
Ng believes these competitions have been effective, galvanizing a much larger segment of the student body into observing sustainable behavior. New South Hall won last year’s Switch It Off competition and appears poised to win this year as well, according to Ng, shaving 11 percent off last year’s energy use mark.
Rivera added that he has been most struck, and impressed, by students’ commitment to action, and not simply rhetoric.
Getting faculty to join the ranks of the environmentally conscious has been more difficult, though. Edward Barrows, a biology professor and director of the Center for the Environment, says it is a serious challenge.
“Recently, I have seen great interest to be more and more sustainable on campus,” Barrows said. “But we still need increased education on campus, and we need urging from chairs of departments to change habits to get greener. Some university receptions are not very green at all, with lots of bottled water and plastic utensils. It’s a problem.”
Frank identifies faculty engagement as one of the major next steps facing the sustainability effort.
“One thing we really have to focus on now is the faculty and staff, to get them really engaged,” she said.
Ng, however, lauds administrative support for EcoAction and their environmental leadership on campus, integrating sustainable practices into the university’s daily life.
“It’s been really encouraging. There are always going to be concerns in resource allocation, but administrators have been very willing to listen, and our suggestions are given a lot of weight,” Ng said.”