With more than 60 campuses nationwide getting energy from coal plants, student protests and lawsuits over power generation have become a part of the college experience.
Earlier this month the Department of Justice filed a suit against the state of Pennsylvania over what it called repeated pollution law violations at Slippery Rock University's coal-fired boiler plant.
And last month the Sierra Club and the Hoosier Environmental Council petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to look into an air permit issued Purdue University got in July. It was signed by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and it will allow the school to continue operating and even expand its coal-powered boilers. The petition claims the permit violates the Clean Air Act.
They're also part of a larger trend explored in a Nov. 3 Deutsche Bank report which says that litigation is playing an increasingly important role in determining the amount of power the government has under existing law to address the climate problem.
While most lawsuits have been filed by industry players, 24 percent of total climate-change related cases since 2001 have come from environmental groups challenging the permitting of coal-fired power plants.
Most Campuses Are Shifting Away From Coal
The movement on campuses continues to be in the direction of greener energy sources, said Kim Teplitzky, a campaign representative from the Sierra Club's Campuses Beyond Coal, the environmental organization's ongoing effort to promote cleaner energy on American campuses.
The organization has been tracking the use of coal-fired power plants on university and college grounds for several years, most recently in an updated national report released in September. In October it launched Too Dirty for Campus, an anti-coal action featuring videos targeted to a college audience.
Commitments to transform campuses to largely or completely coal-free are coming from high-profile institutions, among them the University of North Carolina (UNC), the University of Illinois, Western Kentucky University, and Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. Already, UNC has named 2020 as its coal-free deadline, with an "aspirational" deadline of 2015.
Ball State University in Indiana plans to construct the largest closed geothermal system in the nation by 2017. And the University of Illinois has pledged to stop using coal within seven years as part of its plan to reduce energy use and cut carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, an independent project, the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, claims to have signed 676 academic institutions to a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent.
That's why Purdue's actions are so troublesome to the environmental sector. The university "is going the opposite direction, wanting to actually build new coal infrastructure, which is ludicrous," said Teplitzky.
Michigan State Has Nation's Largest On-Campus Coal Facility
Michigan State University is another school with major coal issues, Teplitzky said. MSU is home to the T.B. Simon coal-powered electric facility, the largest on-campus coal-burning power plant in the country. It burns 250,000 tons of coal a year.
Students at the Lansing campus regularly protest this fact. In September and again in November, 10 MSU Greenpeace students attended a Board of Trustees meeting carrying signs and wearing surgical masks. They marched for 350.org's 10.10.10 event last month and plan to join a "day of action" sponsored by Campuses Beyond Coal on Nov. 18.
MSU Greenpeace coordinator Tabitha Skervin said the goal is to push the university toward a "100 percent carbon-neutral energy source" like wind or geothermal after a necessary "transition period."
The students have been invited to meet with University Vice President Fred Poston on Nov. 16 to discuss the issue.
Tree Trimmings Now, Biomass Later
According to MSU, T.B. Simon is considering a possible biomass fuel facility to lower emissions.
The plant is already using biomass fuels such as tree trimmings and cornstarch pellets for 5 percent of its fuel and is requesting permission to increase the proportion to 30 percent. MSU is also actively researching alternative energy routes, said Karen Zelt, communications manager for MSU's physical plant.
"We know we're not perfect, but we actually do have a good operation as far as the plant goes," Zelt said. "It's a co-generating facility, meaning we operate at 60 percent of efficiency, versus a conventional electric plant that operates at 30 percent efficiency, the reason being that we're using steam to generate electricity."
Zelt said all four of MSU's boilers can fire 100 percent natural gas when the price is right but added that "the economics of keeping tuition down" at a land-grant public university is a factor.
During the first quarter of 2008, the plant reported 7.58 percent excess sulfur dioxide emissions and 4.75 percent excess nitrogen oxide emissions—both classified as high priority violations by the EPA. The state took note. Last winter, the University was handed, and paid, a $27,000 state fine.
Zelt blamed the fine on "a bad batch of coal" and said that MSU self-reported its error. "We have since corrected the problem and no longer work with that coal supplier," she said.
Meanwhile, campus activism continues. On Nov. 18, student chapters of Campuses beyond Coal will blanket their quads with paper pinwheels "as a visual demonstration of the bright, clean energy future we want," said Teplitzky. Students at Bloomburg University in Pennsylvania will spell out the word "now" with their pinwheels.
Some Virginia Tech students will display a field of maroon and orange pinwheels for the school colors, while others will survey residents of a dormitory located next door to the university's coal-fired plant. "We've had reports of coal dust, asthma, and other things...a very urgent public public health issue," Teplitzky said.
The point is to inspire fellow students to join an "environmental revolution" that MSU student leader Skervin said can unite her generation: "We're fighting for our future, for our children, our right to clean air—something a lot of us can visualize."