Colleges and universities have been leading American society on progressive issues for years, and they now must be the vanguard of a movement away from dependence on coal-generated power.
That's the message university students will spread across campuses coast to coast on Tuesday during a national day of action organized by the Sierra Club Student Coalition's Campuses Beyond Coal campaign. Student organizers plan rallies and demonstrations at schools that run on coal.
Campuses Beyond Coal kicked off this month as a grassroots student movement urging university leaders to eliminate coal power in favor of alternative energy sources.
Ryan Doyle, lead campus organizer at University of Missouri, said students want concrete actions to clean up university power sources — and they want them soon. So far, college activists have held protests, launched media campaigns, and circulated petitions demanding a switch to clean power.
"Ideally, [our actions] would lead to a commitment and plan being made by the University to get off of coal quickly. Then, we would see these universities held accountable for these plans and follow through on them," Doyle said.
But students are fighting a well-entrenched foe.
Even today, coal is still king on university campuses. A recent Sierra Club paper reports that over 60 universities nationwide operate coal-burning power plants right on campus, while thousands of others rely on coal-generated electricity they buy from the grid.
Students must draw attention to this "dirty secret" in order to drive a rapid switch to clean power sources, said Sierra Club youth coal campaign coordinator Kim Teplitzky.
"Most students on campuses that have coal plants have no idea they have coal plants. They might even see the smokestacks and think it's something else. But as soon as you tell them it's burning coal, they're shocked," she said. "We're trying to get students to understand that when you're sitting there in the classroom and the lights are on, that's burning coal."
It's not just electricity use that's a problem. Colleges also put significant energy toward heating and cooling the buildings on their often-massive campuses.
Some universities are beginning to move toward more sustainable methods of power production, and they are setting an example for their competitors:
* Cornell and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are both transitioning to biomass. The University of Iowa began an experiment in biomass six years ago, switching 20 percent of coal to waste oat husks from a nearby Quaker Oats plants — a move that has saved the school more than $4 million and cut nearly 300,000 tons of CO2 emissions.
* The University of New Hampshire this year began receiving up to 85% of its energy
from a landfill methane gas-to-energy project. It expects to cash in with renewable energy credits and, with additional efficiency measures, start the campus on a path to zero emissions.
* Indiana's Ball State University is developing the nation's largest closed-loop geothermal system to cut its coal use to zero, a move the school says will eliminate 80,000 tons of emissions per year and reduce its carbon footprint by half.
* Under Sierra Club and EPA pressure, Northern Michigan University announced this year it will run a newly-built power plant on wood alone, backing away from an earlier plan to use coal as a back-up fuel.
Over 650 university leaders have also indicated their commitment to cleaner energy by signing the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a pledge to erase greenhouse gas emissions on their campuses within a target time period set by each institution. This month, several early signatories submitted climate action plans emerging from the two-year emissions inventory process at their schools.
Student organizers say they applaud these actions, but they insist campuses must go further, and work faster, on getting green.
"Administrations are coming out and saying, 'We're doing best we can, we're already doing it.' We're saying this is a great first couple of steps, but we have a long way to go, and we still need to finish the job," Tiplitzky said. "Universities may be building green buildings, sure—but as long as they're burning coal to fuel those buildings, it's still not a green campus."
As part of the campaign, students hope to convince college leaders that ditching dirty power will give their institutions more than just a clean conscience.
"This is a long-term investment in the future of the university," Tiplitzky said.
And though students acknowledge the significant costs required to switch off coal, they don't buy that as an excuse for institutional stalling.
"The financing exists," Tiplitzky said. "It's just an issue of where they want to put the money—where do they want to invest it?"
As students see it, the greatest hurdle will be overcoming a system where coal has long been the status quo. "We have been mining and burning coal in this country since the 19th century," Doyle said. "People have begun to grow accustomed to seeing coal smokestacks around and having power generated from coal," he said.
But Doyle, Tiplitzky and their fellow organizers think universities have the chance to lead the way out of a coal-powered past by setting a sustainable mold for other institutions to follow.
"Young people get it," Tiplitzky said. "They understand we can't keep fueling our campuses and our communities in the same dirty way we always have. So by making their campuses truly models of sustainability for society, that's the way students can capture that groundswell of support to eventually move the entire nation."