Finding alternatives to coal on campus

A few weeks ago, we drew your attention to students who are fighting against coal power on their campuses: University of Kentucky students voted against the building of a "Wildcat Coal Lodge" dorm that was sponsored by Alliance Coal, and in Massachusetts, students slept out in the cold on the Boston Commons to register their support for a bill that would power the state with 100% clean energy.

This week, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education follows up on the issue, noting that "scores of institutions […] are grappling with coal's problematic public image and very real environmental impacts," as students pressure the administration to find alternatives and federal legislators become more receptive to cap-and-trade limits on carbon dioxide pollution. The article also notes that the President's Climate Commitment, with its ambitious GHG reduction targets, is incompatible with burning coal.

What's most note-worthy is the attention paid to the lack of alternatives for campus-based power plants. For many schools, like Penn State, geothermal isn't possible due to the risk of contaminating groundwater supplies. Biomass–usually a mixture of woodchips and organic waste–which is in use at schools like Middlebury, is a logistical nightmare for big schools, because it is less energy-dense than coal and more is required to keep the furnaces running, and because it must be more protected from weather and damp. Biomass also requires a sharp eye on the source: if it comes from old growth or forests that are accounted as carbon sinks, it may be just as polluting as coal in the long run. Natural gas, which is often referred to as a "bridge" fuel because it is less polluting than coal but still generates some greenhouse gases, has unreliable supply lines. And so on.

Of course, efficiency helps somewhat. Upgrading boilers and capturing waste heat can wring more use out of any energy source, including coal, so less material is needed per unit of energy. However, this isn't a solution even in the short term, as energy needs continue to rise as the campus grows, and as students rely more on electronics that need to be constantly recharged. And cost can't be ignored, especially during a recession:

"If Penn State, Virginia Tech, and other institutions find an
alternative to coal, the question is, What will students do to help
cover any additional costs? "A part of our campaign would be to educate
students on why it's worth it to pay more for clean energy," says Rose
Monahan, a sophomore who leads the anti-coal campaign at Penn State.
Efforts to change students' behavior to save energy—which Ms. Monahan
calls "the hardest part" of reducing impacts­—are not part of her
group's work, but other groups on the campus focus on that issue."

Regardless, institutions are moving forward. The Chronicle story points out that the University of Wisconsin is working to find enough biomass for a new plant, and VA Tech and Penn State are also looking for ways to burn less (or no) coal. Cornell University's new combined heat and power plant launches this month, and is intended to
get the university coal-free by 2011.

This task isn't easy. If there's any clear lesson to draw, it's that each school's solution will look different. For example, this article doesn't go into options for schools that pull all their energy from the grid, and have less control over the sustainability of their fuel sources. Nor does it look at the western U.S., where solar energy plays a bigger role. Creating the precise mix of renewable energy, conservation, efficiency, and "bridge fuels" like natural gas that can sustain the activities of the university, and finding a way to pay for it, will require an unprecedented amount of work on the part of facilities managers and administrators, as well as increased support from students and faculty.

Published: January 13, 2010