Coal burning stifles U climate goals

The University Sustainability Committee is overlooking the worst source of carbon pollution.

by Jayme Dittmar

The University Sustainability Committee is charged with creating a Climate Action Plan by the end of 2010. This plan is supposed to create a working document that will move the University of Minnesota into a carbon-neutral future.
However, the deadline is looming and the committee isnâÄôt addressing the largest contributor of the campusâÄô carbon emissions.
Of all possible energy sources, coal emits the greatest amount of carbon in the United States. The price of coal is rising, while the price of alternatives is in decline. But using it does not come without a cost to the environment or human health. Kim Teplitzky, director of the Sierra Student Coalition, Campus Beyond Coal Campaign, says the University is only one of 63 campuses left burning coal in the nation.
President Bob Bruininks said in a letter to the president of Campus Beyond Coal, Siri Simons, that âÄúThe Sustainability Committee will evaluate energy-source options in detail and complete a draft Climate Action Plan by the end of 2010.âÄù Still, there is little indication of research or an evaluation process of alternative energy sources.
Students delivered a petition with 5,000 signatures to the University Sustainability Committee in early October, asking it to transition from coal to cleaner energy sources. Instead of discussing possible solutions to the UniversityâÄôs energy inefficiency, the committee told students about the economic difficulties of moving the campus beyond coal.
Tim Harlan-Marks, a field organizer for Campus Beyond Coal, says the University purchased a boiler in the late 1990s with the intention of adding biomass to the fuel mix, oat hulls provided by General Mills. Today, he says, supplies of oat hulls have become inconsistent and an alternative biomass fuel hasnâÄôt been determined.
Students asked how the committee would study fuel alternatives and plan to move the University into a clean energy future. All the committee could discuss were challenges the facilities have encountered burning the one type of biomass currently being used.
Chris Swason, a junior at the University, says that when students presented the petition to the Sustainability Committee, the administration wanted to discuss the good things it was already doing instead of addressing the fact that the University is still being powered by coal.
Many other schools that have made coal-free commitments include the University of Wisconsin, Penn State University, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Cornell University and Ball State University. Each has pursued cost-effective, coal-free solutions that fit their particular needs.
 âÄúMoving beyond coal is becoming the metric by which University sustainability is being judged,âÄù co-author of the University of Illinois climate action plan, Suhail Barot, said at the meeting with the committee.
How can the University operate the last coal burning plant in Minneapolis and still be a sustainability leader?
The Sustainability Committee needs to address the fact that moving to a carbon-neutral future will take more than encouraging students to ride bicycles and take the Campus Connectors. We cannot continue to call ourselves a leading environmental institute and be powered from the greatest polluting energy source on the planet.
There is a reason why if you look up coal in a thesaurus, carbon is the first word that is listed as a synonym. If the committee is in fact interested in a carbon-free University, it needs to tackle the problem from its worst source. That means using the Climate Change Action Plan to direct the campus off of its coal dependence.