Student coalitions turn up the heat on dirty energy
By Brian Kevin
Big Red is going green, big time. In January, the Ithaca, New York, school became the latest to move beyond coal when it unveiled a new $80 million heating-and-power plant to replace its outdated coal-fired facility. The development came after five years of student organizing, first by the KyotoNOW! student group and more recently by the Sierra Student Coalition, which last year launched the nationwide Campuses Beyond Coal campaign. Cornell's new plant is equipped to run on biofuels, but it will use natural gas and recycled steam power to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 28 percent and wean Cornell from coal by mid-2011.
For Kim Teplitzky, SSC's Campuses Beyond Coal coordinator, Cornell is just the first victory among 61 campus-based coal plants the group has targeted for closure. "Today's aging campus plants are going to need upgrades that will require their own huge capital investments," she said. "By making the switch now, universities are investing in a clean-energy future that's better for their local communities and the young people they're supposed to be preparing and sending out into the world."
Following a Clean Air Act lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club, the university system agreed this year to convert the 50-year-old coal-fired plant at its Madison campus to run on biomass by 2013. Now students and community members are pushing for that facility to use clean-burning native prairie grasses rather than wood. Meanwhile, Wisconsin students are targeting coal-fired plants on eight other UW campuses, following up on a commitment by Governor Jim Doyle for the state to draw a quarter of its energy from renewables by 2025.
When the school pledged in 2007 to reduce its CO2 emissions by 60 percent by 2050, students with Coal-Free UNC upped the ante: How about zero emissions by 2015? The campaign prompted a reassessment, and in May, Chancellor Holden Thorp agreed to phase out coal completely by 2020 and to get 20 percent of the campus's energy from bio-fuels by 2015. Coal-Free UNC continues to push for an earlier deadline of 2012—as well as for a boycott of coal from mountaintop-removal mines.
The SSC is campaigning against the three schools' practice of depositing their coal ash in unlined quarries; the fear is that its many toxic components will leach into local aquifers. Last year, student pressure led to voluntary groundwater-monitoring programs, but coal-waste policies remain unchanged.
A vegetable garden sits in the shadowof the university's coal-fired stacks. The SSC joined forces this year with the student group UAF Beyond Coal. Students there are pressing the existing sustainability task force to study renewable alternatives to coal. —Brian Kevin
Illustrations by Tim Gough