It’s a sunny, fall day and you’re touring the University of Minnesota. You’re thinking about applying there next year.
You stop at the intersection on the edge of campus by Annie’s Parlor and look out to the view of the city skyline. Then something catches your eye that doesn’t catch the attention of most students. It’s a steam plant along the Mississippi with smoke billowing out of its stacks.
Your tour guide explains, “And that is the University’s Southeast Steam Plant. It’s located near the Stone Arch Bridge, pollutes the river with mercury and emits thousands of tons of CO2 into the air surrounding campus.”
Now, I admit this is a sensationalized story meant to raise alarm while I only present a fraction of the facts. You should also know that the University is committed to energy efficiency and is a leader in the field. In fact, the University should be proud of the strides it has made in sustainability.
The University is a member of the Chicago Climate Exchange, has supported more than 400 research projects on renewable energy and the environment, has adopted a green construction policy for all new buildings, regularly promotes waste prevention in its dining and residential halls, is committed to energy efficiency and, in truth, has greatly reduced its dependence on carbon-based energy sources.
But now it’s time for the next step: becoming coal-free.
Currently, the University’s East Bank steam plant primarily uses clean energy sources such as natural gas, biomass and, innovatively, oat hulls. However, according to University Services spokesman Tim Busse, 23 percent of its energy still comes from coal.
According to the U.S. Energy Protection Agency, burning coal is the dirtiest way to produce electricity and is a leading source of global warming pollution. Additionally, the Sierra Club estimates that each year 21,000 hospitalizations, 38,000 heart attacks and 24,000 deaths are caused by coal plant pollution nationwide.
These numbers are startling, but they’re only a couple from the hundreds of statistics to choose from.
Beyond Coal, a University student organization in conjunction with the Sierra Club, estimates that in 2009 the University burned 38,740 tons of coal. To some calculations, this would equate to 77,480 tons of carbon dioxide pollutants in the air around campus.
Siri Simons, president of Beyond Coal, stresses the importance of being coal-free for three reasons: the environment, public health concerns and the University’s image as a sustainability leader.
Speaking on her experience as an environmental studies major, Simons pointed to the irony of learning about renewable energy from an institution that still relies on fossil fuels.
“Why is what we are being taught in the classroom not put into practice on campus?” Simons said. “We are a huge research institution. Put students, put environmental students, put grad students on these projects and help them put what they’re learning in the classroom onto campus.”
There is no disputing that this could be a slow and costly plan. With the University’s state funding slashed, it could even be considered unreasonable to demand this. However, Beyond Coal and its supporters understand this. The group is not demanding the University go coal-free now but that it make a feasible plan to do so in the future.
As Simons pointed out, the University has a lot of resources to help facilitate this process. The University could easily ask the students for their help, ask alumni for donations and apply for clean-energy grants. Just as the University funded TCF Bank Stadium through a collapsing economy, it could also fund a coal-free energy plant if it were made a priority.
Universities across the nation are ending their dependence on coal completely. Even rival institution University of Wisconsin made the change. Their heating plant, by far the largest coal plant in Wisconsin, is scheduled to be converted into a biomass energy plant by 2013.
Burning more than 100,000 tons of coal a year, the plant is more than twice the size of the University of Minnesota’s plant, which begs the question: If they can do it, why can’t we?
Jessica Tatro, regional representative of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign, said their organization is currently encouraging the University of Minnesota to conduct a feasibility study into ways in which the University could become coal-free by 2015. She said ultimately how the coal-free effort is made is in the hands of the University and that even Beyond Coal’s timeline could be extended to 2020 if needed. But first the University would need to look into how this could become possible and how to finance it.
“What is really important is the University is making that public commitment,” Tatro said. “It’s about being a leader in sustainability and taking that step and moving forward. Coal is the energy of the past; renewable is the energy of the future. We need to be moving toward the future.”
While the transition to cleaner energy sources can require a large financial commitment, renewable energy sources such as wind power and solar panels eventually pay for their own installation costs. These savings could be used for new investments in technology, student aid and staff.
“This University needs to continue to recruit students, needs to continue to be that leader — to get more people, to get more faculty, to get more dollars into the institution,” Tatro said. “Taking that step is going to help draw those people and dollars into the University.”
Jennifer Bissell welcomes comments at email@example.com.
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