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Student activists are kicking ash and taking names

By Brian Kevin

Photo by Chloe Aftel

With support from the Campuses Beyond Coal campaign by the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), college greenies are turning up the heat on administrators and rallying to phase out coal power at universities nationwide. The SSC is targeting 40-plus campus coal plants for closure, and coordinator Kim Teplitzky sees a "definite snowballing" effect, with victories that include shuttered boilers in the heart of the coal belt.

This spring, the SSC distributed 300 pairs of specially designed "Beyond Coal" undies from organic-clothing company Pact to student groups across the country. Clad only in their new skivvies, activists "exposed" coal during a series of "flesh mobs" at Miami University of Ohio (above) and the University of North Texas. Watch the video here. And check out the SSC's "Beyond Coal: Pants Off Dance Off"

In the onetime coal town of Athens, Ohio University's 45-year-old coal-fired Lausche Heating Plant has been churning out an annual 1,200 tons of sulfur dioxide long past its original 30-year life span. Opposition to the plant was scarce until 2009, when student activists worked with SSC to form OU Beyond Coal. "It was kind of an elephant in the room," former OU organizer Badger Johnson says. "You'd look up every night at this plume of green smoke—I kid you not." The group collected more than 2,000 signatures from students and residents on a petition urging an end to OU's reliance on coal, and they pressured administrators and trustees. This March, the school agreed to retire the Lausche plant in 2016 and ruled out coal as a replacement fuel. Now, student representatives from OU Beyond Coal sit on a new energy-planning committee, advocating for investments in wind, solar, and geothermal power.

When SSC organizers reached out to students at Purdue in early 2010, school officials had already green-lighted a new $28 million coal-fired boiler. While neighboring Ball State University had opted to replace coal with geothermal energy a year earlier, Purdue clung true to its athletic nickname: the Boilermakers. But rallying and canvassing—along with a legal challenge to Purdue's clean-air permits by the Sierra Club—helped reverse the decision. In February, Purdue announced that it was scrapping the coal boiler in favor of marginally cleaner natural gas. Meanwhile, Purdue students continue pushing for investments in renewable-energy sources and the closure of the campus's existing coal-fired plants.

Built in 1945, Missouri S&T's coal- and wood-fired boiler pre-dates color television. So when students at the mining and engineering school in Rolla, 94 miles south of the main University of Missouri campus in Columbia, started pushing to decommission the antiquated facility last year, they found a refreshingly receptive administration. In November, college administrators announced plans to install a geothermal heating system that will save $1.4 million a year and cut annual carbon dioxide emissions by 25,000 tons. In later years, the power shift is expected to cut energy costs by $2.8 million annually.

This article has been corrected.

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