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Sierra magazine
Cool Schools: The Third Annual List

Coal Schools: Filth Is flunking

A growing number of colleges and universities are giving a failing grade to campus energy systems powered by fossilized carbon. They're expelling coal not just because it's cooking the planet but also because it no longer makes economic sense.

Faced with rebuilding the four coal boilers that heat Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, president Jo Ann Gora looked at the numbers and decided to go with a new geothermal system instead. "In the process of trying to get bids, we realized the only place [new coal boilers] could be manufactured was China," she said, "and it was going to be more expensive than anyone had realized."

Work on Ball State's $70 million geothermal system, designed with assistance from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, began in May. Installing it will create 900 local jobs for five to ten years, and once in place, it will halve the university's carbon footprint and save $2 million annually in energy costs. Workers will bore 4,000 holes 400 feet deep into the grounds of the 660-acre campus; water circulating through closed-loop pipes in those holes will make the earth a heat source in winter and a heat sink in summer. Ball State officials say it will be the nation's largest such geothermal system.

Coal-fired heating plants are also getting the heave-ho at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, after a Sierra Club lawsuit established that they had been violating the Clean Air Act for years. Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle (D) recently announced a $251 million project to convert the boilers at Madison to run on paper pellets and wood chips instead.

When students at Northern Michigan University in Marquette learned about a proposal to modify and enlarge the campus heating plant so it could burn coal, they protested. So did the EPA, which refused to grant an air permit for the coal burner. Administrators belatedly bowed to the opposition and asked the state to void the project's construction permit.

Actions like these put the nation's college campuses at the front of the movement to replace dirty coal with clean energy sources. At least 60 campuses--most in the Midwest--still burn coal, the vast majority to heat buildings, a few to make electricity.

"Students are transforming their communities to create models for what the rest of society can do," said Kim Teplitzky, coal campaign coordinator for the Sierra Student Coalition. "Campuses are learning from each other and collaborating so it will be a movement, not just individual campaigns."

Many administrators are taking initiative on their own; more than 600 university and college presidents signed a commitment to green their campuses. Although most are in the very early stages of making good on that pledge, some, like the Ball State leaders, are moving ahead rapidly.

They'd all better hurry up. Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, said the next push is to kick coal off every campus in America. —Frances Cerra Whittelsey

Illustration by Nate Williams

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