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Students Fight To Kick Carbon Off Campuses

By Kirsten Gibson, Guest Contributor on August 14, 2013 at 8:38 am

"Students Fight To Kick Carbon Off Campuses"

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greenEnergy1College campuses are centers of innovation and research. They can also use as much energy as small cities.

In addition to playing an important role in climate activist Bill McKibben’s campaign to divest from fossil fuels, college students across the country are becoming increasingly aware of the enormous amounts of energy their campuses consume and are pushing for greener alternatives. The movement has been an uphill battle, but activists are staying positive.

“Nation-wide, because of student leadership and grassroots campaigns by students, 22 universities have made commitments with retirement dates for campus coal plants and they’re switching over to cleaner energy solutions,” says Anastasia Schemkes, an associate campaign representative for the Sierra Student Coalition chapters, a major player in divestment efforts.

Schemkes has good reason to be optimistic. According to a recent poll by the Beneson Strategy Group, 80 percent of young voters support President Barack Obama’s plan to take action against climate change. Most give pragmatic reasons for their support — 65 percent say investments in clean energy would create jobs.

But while the enthusiasm is there, environmentally-conscious students face major hurdles in greening their school’s energy supply. Some universities have done little to get off fossil fuels and invest in cleaner sources of energy. Other schools are having trouble finding cost-efficient technology to convert to. Others are inching toward clean energy. But in any school, students are usually the driving force behind the push.

Oberlin's solar panels make up for 12 percent of its electricity.

Oberlin’s solar panels make up 12 percent of its electricity.

CREDIT: SPG Solar

Decreasing a campus’s carbon footprint is often much easier said than done. Oberlin College, for example, had a plan to switch from coal to landfill gas with the ultimate goal being total carbon neutrality by 2025. That plan fell through, though, when they couldn’t secure a vendor for the gas. Regardless, the college revised its plan and took a look at what it could do with its coal and natural gas boilers.

The change wasn’t as simple as Oberlin’s administrators had originally planned, but they’ve found a way. The college came up with a mixture of ideas to meet its 2025 goal by observing other colleges and calling in consultants. Bridget Flynn, Oberlin’s sustainability coordinator, said all new buildings are LEED certified, use geothermal pumps for heat, and are net-positive for energy. They’re also installing electric compressor heating pumps because their electric company has pledged to supply 90 percent renewable energy by 2015. A large solar array will produce 12 percent of the campus’s electricity.

Already, the school is using 45 percent renewable energy, Flynn said.

Ball State's geothermal pump

Ball State’s geothermal pump

CREDIT: The Hagerman Group

Oberlin isn’t alone in making progress. Colby College in Maine, another small school, is already carbon neutral. Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana is a 20,000 student school and transitioning to a geothermal heating system. The school touts its $2 million in cost savings and a reduction of its carbon footprint by half. And American University, which is about half the size of Ball State, has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2020.

On larger campuses, however, students are often met with more resistance. Katie Orndahl, a student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, worked with her local Campus Beyond Coal chapter to garner support among students to have their university divest its endowment fund from fossil fuels entirely and, hopefully, become a leading example among public universities. A referendum was put before the students and 77 percent voted in favor of divestment and their student congress overwhelmingly passed a recommendation to divest.

But UNC’s president and Board of Trustees have yet to address if they will ever divest from fossil fuels.

Student pressure prompted then-chancellor Thorp to promise to get rid of coal on the Chapel Hill campus by 2020 and replace 20 percent of coal use by 2015, a promise that made the campus environmental groups happy. And most recently, the UNC system president Thomas Ross requested that its other energy provider, Duke Energy, get on par with the system’s plan to be carbon neutral by 2050, again, at the behest of students.

Phil Barnes holds wood pellets which will be tested in the boilers at cogen facility at the University of North Carolina system.

Phil Barnes holds wood pellets which will be tested in the boilers at cogen facility at the University of North Carolina system.

CREDIT: University Gazette

UNC-Chapel Hill is finding out how difficult it is to change energy sources. Phil Barner, director of energy services, said they are testing different products, but a date to replace some of the coal is up in the air. The school recently invested in five fossil fuel boilers — three of which use natural gas and two that rely on coal. The coal boilers are able to cogenerate, essentially burn fuel more efficiently, and could use biomass or torrefied wood for energy, which would be cleaner.

“We’re still kinda waiting for a product that we think will work well in our system,” Barner said. “Torrefied wood — we’re still waiting for that product to be commercially available. With the economy being hit in 2008, it slowed down the development of that product and the economics are a bit troubling right now with moving forward to 100 percent biomass.”

Students protest in front of the Wildcat Coal Lodge.

Students protest in front of the Wildcat Coal Lodge.

CREDIT: Matt Goins/Lexington Herald-Leader

Schools at the opposite end of the spectrum, such as the University of Kentucky (UK), are heavily reliant on coal and don’t show signs of changing. Coal has a sacred connection to the university through its most celebrated activity: basketball. In 2009, the Board of Trustees at UK voted to name the men’s basketball dorms to the “Wildcat Coal Lodge” after the coal industry donated $7 million to the university. The coal industry is also notorious for sponsoring games for one of college basketball’s most prestigious programs in the nation, though the Sierra Club fought back and sponsored popular games between UK and Indiana University and Arkansas.

Rachel Aretakis, a student journalist at UK, said that the anti-coal movement on campus is alive and well, but that coal’s influence is pervasive in Kentuckians’ lives.

“It kind of goes back to the whole history of coal in the state,” she said. “It supports Kentucky, it supports the university.”

In the university’s sustainability report, UK’s seven-year average coal usage is 33,811 tons, which cost $3.5 million. Sixty-two percent of heat produced came from burning coal.

The university hasn’t entirely ignored students’ interest in coal-usage. They’ve sponsored forums and educational activities, such as tours of the coal plant, to get students involved. But when it comes to discussing getting off coal, the university has remained silent.

Students are given a tour of one of the University of Kentucky's coal plants.

Students are given a tour of one of the University of Kentucky’s coal plants.

CREDIT: The Kentucky Kernel/Latara Appleby

In a 2011 Lexington Herald-Leader article, vice president for operations Bob Wiseman said, “For the foreseeable future, I continue to see a combination of coal and natural gas, primarily driven by cost.”

A spokesperson from the university sent ThinkProgress a statement from Wiseman:

The University of Kentucky is permitted dual main fuel sources to supply our heating plant boilers. We currently have 11 boilers (seven natural gas and four coal) located in three heating plants. Our most recently constructed and permitted heating plant is all natural gas.

Historically, the majority of our boilers use coal, with the minority using natural gas. But in the past several years for permit compliance reasons as well as financial reasons, UK has become a majority user of natural gas with coal usage in a much more limited fashion. That trend line continues.

Tyler Hess, a sustainable agriculture student at UK, said transitioning to natural gas should not be the end of the school’s sustainability efforts. “We’ve been moving toward natural gas. The university has tried to frame that as a sustainability move when it’s more of an economic move,” Hess said. “Instead a move that has been pushed will be a feasibility study for putting solar panels and windmills on the campus. There’s land near campus where windmills could be put and we have a lot of bare roofs.”

But, Hess said, there’s been little talk of what the university will do to stop emitting carbon pollution from fossil fuels.

Many schools are turning away from coal and onto natural gas, a fossil fuel that also leaves a carbon footprint and should peak in use between 2020 and 2030 to keep carbon reduction on track, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. Vanderbilt, the University of Tennessee, and Southeast Missouri State are some of the schools that pledged to switch to natural gas. Barner acknowledged that natural gas isn’t a permanent solution and he could only offer a glimpse of what could be. Flynn also noted that natural gas is a transitional source.

“I don’t want to downplay how strongly our campus feels about the issues of using natural gas,” she said. “It does not mean there aren’t concerns over the use of natural gas.”

While the effort to transition college campuses to cleaner sources of energy, more efficient buildings and a standard of sustainability that reflects the growing youth climate movement won’t be easy, students across the country aren’t giving up anytime soon.

Kirsten Gibson is an intern for ThinkProgress.

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