Coal-Burning Campuses Face Increased Pressure to Find Alternative Fuels

Under scrutiny from environmental groups and students, colleges seek alternatives to the popular fuel

John Beale for The Chronicle

The steam plant at Penn State has been a target of environmentalists, who have held rallies outside the office of Paul Moser, superintendent of steam services, to protest the use of coal as an energy source.
January 10, 2010

Discussions about coal are not abstract in Pennsylvania. Coal has brought wealth to this state for more than a century, along with a good deal of misery. On a bone-chilling December day here at the steam plant at Pennsylvania State University, which serves as a main source of heat and some electricity to the bustling main campus of more than 42,000 students, it is apparent that the livelihoods of Pennsylvanians still rely on that old black rock.

"The backbone of the Industrial Revolution happened in this state," Paul Moser, an engineer who runs the steam plant, says amid the whooshing din of four coal-fired boilers. Mr. Moser is one who both admires the power of coal and has also seen the damage it has done, particularly in the now decimated communities around the abandoned anthracite mines in the northeastern part of the state.

Lately the steam plant has been a target of environmentalists and activist students, who have met with administrators and held rallies outside Mr. Moser's door in attempts to push the university away from coal-fired energy. He doesn't entirely disagree with the protesters. "If your whole society is based on finite quantities of stuff that could one day run out, you should be looking for ways to replace that," he says, noting that Penn State burns about 75,000 tons of coal, or some 3,200 truckloads, every year.

The question he asks the activists: What reliable, economical energy source can power the campus in coal's place? "That's where a lot of our conversations get quiet."

Penn State is one of scores of institutions that are grappling with coal's problematic public image and very real environmental impacts. Students, who may not have noticed the coal plant in years past, have become more aware of the issue of climate change and see numerous downsides to burning coal. They are applying pressure to make colleges stop. Administrators are feeling heat from Washington as well, where discussions of cap-and-trade legislation, carbon taxes, and emissions regulations are getting more attention these days. Hundreds of college leaders have signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which commits them to achieve climate neutrality. That commitment is very likely incompatible with burning coal, which produces more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel.

But colleges may find it difficult to wean themselves off coal. Most renewable energy sources are not as reliable, potent, or accessible, and many experts predict that coal will continue providing a significant portion of the nation's energy. To complicate matters, energy use on growing campuses is more intense than ever—in part because of the living arrangements of students, who occupy bigger spaces and have devices plugged into every wall. Coal is certainly dirty, but colleges that want to stop burning it might have to make significant investments and take some risks to find alternatives.

At the same time, activist groups such as the Sierra Club, which has organized a prominent campaign against coal on campuses, might make trouble for colleges that continue to burn coal. In late 2007, the group successfully sued the University of Wisconsin at Madison, showing that it had violated the federal Clean Air Act when it did not install pollution-control technology during maintenance on its 50-year-old coal plant.

Bruce Nilles, a lawyer who directs the Sierra Club's national coal campaign, believes that other colleges have similarly extended the lives of their coal plants without installing legally required pollution controls.

The group is now scrutinizing coal plants on four other University of Wisconsin campuses, and plans over the coming year to broaden its investigations into coal plants on dozens of other campuses. "Based on our analyses of the campus coal plants in Wisconsin, we expect to find compliance problems at many of the existing campus coal plants," Mr. Nilles says.

Expensive Alternatives

Activists galvanized by the Sierra Club are active on coal-burning campuses like Binghamton University and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The organization is also involved in organizing campaigns at institutions that merely buy coal power from the grid, like the University of Southern California.

Laura C. Stevens, an organizer for the Sierra Club at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has pushed students to reject the university's pledge to reduce its coal consumption by 25 percent by 2025.

"That's not fast enough," she says. She would like to see Chapel Hill chase its rival, Duke University, which recently replaced 70 percent of its coal power with cleaner-burning but more-expensive natural gas. Duke, which has signed the climate commitment, anticipates stricter emissions regulations, says Tavey M. Capps, Duke's sustainability director.

At Virginia Tech, which burns some 35,000 tons of coal a year for steam, administrators recently met with student activists who laid out their demands—among them, to get off coal entirely by 2020. Sherwood G. Wilson, vice president for administrative services, says the university is unlikely to agree, because alternatives to coal are too expensive. Switching to natural gas, for example, would add about $9-million to the university's $18-million annual fuel bill, and payoffs for geothermal systems probably stretch many years in the future, he says.

"We are in an environment in higher education where we are scrutinized every time tuition increases," says Mr. Wilson. "When we make capital investments, such as a new biomass plant or geothermal, the only source of revenue for that is tuition."

At his recommendation, Virginia Tech did not sign the Presidents' Climate Commitment, whose goals he does not find realistic. But the university has come up with its own goal: to get 80 percent below 1990 emissions levels by 2050.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Mr. Wilson has had a lifelong relationship with coal. While working at Ohio University, from 1995 to 2005, he helped researchers attract more than $25-million in grants to study ways to use coal power with less pollution. The country's reserves of natural gas and oil are much shallower than its reserves of coal, he notes. "I don't want to sound like I'm leading the charge to say that coal is the future. My position, and the university's position, is that coal has to be part of the solution that gets us to that future."

Haiz Oppenheimer, a Sierra Club organizer who met with Mr. Wilson and a Virginia Tech facilities director last month, says he and the activist students expect the university to use its engineering research to help find that energy future. But he was disappointed by the tone of the meeting, during which administrators offered no commitments other than to continue talking with the students.

"They probably anticipate being able to talk into eternity," Mr. Oppenheimer says. "I think they are underestimating the campaign."

Weighing Options

Late last year, Penn State announced that it would start upgrading its steam-plant operations in 2010 to "promote greater environmental stewardship and ensure reliable heating for campus buildings." What that exactly means is still a mystery to both campus activists and, it seems, administrators themselves. In 2002 the university devised a plan to replace its coal-fired plant, on the west side of campus, which was built in 1930 and has boilers that date to the 1960s, with a more modern plant—but one that still relies on coal.

Now administrators are reconsidering those plans. Penn State is responding not only to activism from student environmentalists, but also to its own faculty members. The university is home to prominent climate scientists, like Michael E. Mann, who helped develop the famous "hockey stick" graph, which shows temperatures shooting up in the fossil-fuel era. The dissonance between such research and the fuels that provide heat on the campus cannot be ignored, says Steve Maruszew­ski, deputy associate vice president for physical plant.

The university is now investigating various energy sources—including natural gas, biomass, and even small-scale nuclear power, along with old reliable coal—for steam generation in the future. Each energy source comes with difficult questions, risks, and unintended consequences, Mr. Maruszewski says.

For example, biomass—which can include products like wood chips and agricultural waste—can have one-sixth the energy density of coal. The 20 to 30 truckloads of coal that currently arrive each day at Penn State would become up to 180 truckloads of biomass, a logistical nightmare. The already sizable coal pile near the plant would become a wood-chip mountain. And Mr. Maruszewski and Mr. Moser wonder where burnable products would reliably come from.

Beyond biomass, there are more conundrums. To name a few: Natural-gas prices can be high and volatile, and its supply lines are unreliable, Mr. Maruszewski says. (It's difficult to assess how newly accessible gas from shale underneath New York and Pennsylvania, recently described as the new "gold rush" in energy, will affect gas supplies and prices.) Geothermal energy, which uses pipes drilled deep into the earth to form a kind of heat bank, might not be an option here in Happy Valley because of geology and hydrology; past Penn State studies have shown that geothermal installations would put groundwater supplies at risk.

To avoid volatility and supply problems, Mr. Maruszewski says, the university will probably opt for a plant that can burn multiple energy sources, including coal.

"Coal in its current form is hard to justify," he says. But "we are not ruling coal out as a future resource if we can figure out how to use it in a responsible way."

Penn State has a number of researchers devoted to studying "clean coal," or ways to capture pollutants, including carbon dioxide, before they leave the smokestack. Carbon capture and sequestration techniques are for now mostly theoretical. Present technology might use 20 to 30 percent of a plant's power just to capture its carbon-dioxide emissions. And questions remain about what then to do with that gas. Some energy experts, like Vaclav Smil, of the University of Manitoba, have determined that carbon-capture schemes would probably be too costly, too complicated, too politically dicey, and too risky to ever become a reality on a meaningful scale. (According to one doomsday scenario, carbon dioxide escapes from underground reservoirs and asphyxiates nearby communities.)

Further, the term "clean coal" tends to focus on what rises from smokestacks. But coal has tremendous environmental impacts long before it is burned for energy, and long after. Appalachian coal has come under scrutiny for a mining technique commonly known as "mountaintop removal," in which mining companies blast whole mountains to get at the coal underneath, polluting valleys and streams in the process. Ending the method has become a cause célèbre, with support from prominent locals like the writer and farmer Wendell Berry.

And after coal is burned, its fly ash is a toxic waste, containing mercury, arsenic, lead, thallium, and a host of other poisons. Penn State, for one, sends about 750 tons of coal fly ash to a landfill every year. A year ago, more than five million cubic yards of ash spilled out of a containment pond in Tennessee and polluted thousands of acres of land and waterways.

Mr. Maruszewski says Penn State may start looking at the life-cycle impacts of the coal it buys, much the same way it reviews the sustainability of procurements like carpet and paper products. (Penn State joined in the recent, successful campaign by Greenpeace to pressure the Kimberly-Clark Corporation to stop clear-cutting forests in Canada.) This year Penn State started buying coal from Kentucky, most likely from mountaintop-removal mines. The university may re-evaluate that purchase in the future.

By contrast, Mr. Wilson says, Virginia Tech will probably not review its coal purchases, despite student prodding. He is personally ambivalent about mountaintop removal. From his point of view, it's not necessarily worse than underground mining, and he says it creates flat landscape for development. Virginia Tech gets some of its coal from the Massey Energy Company, which recently paid $20-million to settle a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more than 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act, coming in part through its mountaintop-removal methods in Appalachia.

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.

Bryce Carter, an activist at Virginia Tech, says students are starting an energy-saving competition among residence halls, and the student government is discussing an optional, $5-per-semester "green fee." But even if all students agreed to pay it, the fee would not provide nearly enough money to allow Virginia Tech to switch to another fuel, like natural gas.

"I don't have all the answers regarding money," Mr. Carter says. "This is not going to be an overnight switch. … We are taking the initial steps."

A 'More Sustainable' Future

In higher education, a similar shift among some adventurous institutions is under way. Ball State University has drawn attention for its plan to give up coal and build one of the largest geothermal heating systems in the world. The $70-million system will include some 4,000 geothermal wells drilled in open spaces on the campus. (On the coldest days, the university will burn natural gas for supplemental heat.)

James W. Lowe, director of engineering, construction, and operations, says the university initially considered building a new coal plant to replace its 1940s-era boilers. But the bids for a new coal system came back at $40-million, nearly twice the original estimates. "The cost would have been $60-million by the time they put a building around it," he says.

The university looked into other options and found geothermal, which is used more commonly in Europe. Compared with operating a coal plant, the geothermal system will save the university $2-million a year, Mr. Lowe estimates—and will be an educational tool to boot.

The University of Wisconsin at Madison is taking on an alternative-energy project that might have rewards for the state, but with considerable challenges for the institution. After the university lost its legal tussle with the Sierra Club, it agreed to a series of concessions to reduce the environmental impact of its Charter Street heating plant, built in 1959, which burns more than 100,000 tons of coal a year.

Alan Fish, associate vice chancellor for facilities planning and management, says the university could have met the letter of the agreement with $60-million in upgrades. Instead, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, announced that the campus facility—by far the largest state-owned coal plant in Wisconsin—would give up coal entirely and switch to biomass by 2013 to help develop a renewable-fuels market within the state.

The $250-million plan has its risks. In a report released last May, consultants hired by the state determined that there probably would not be sufficient biomass supplies in Wisconsin when the plant is scheduled to reopen. The consultants also cited significant uncertainties about the future prices of biomass and argued the change in fuel would lead to infrastructural challenges, like increased traffic of trains and trucks carrying biomass to the plant.

Gary Radloff, an energy-policy specialist with the Wisconsin Bioenergy Institute, which advises state officials on the Charter Street project, acknowledges those challenges. But he believes the state has great potential for growing biomass products on fallow and underutilized land. He sees the Wisconsin biomass market operating something like the state's dairy businesses, in which products from scattered farmers compose a major, vibrant industry.

For now, university officials hope to burn waste wood from the forestry and paper industries. Initially, though, the renovated plant may have to rely primarily on natural gas.

"We may pay a premium on the front end to create a market," Mr. Fish says. "But in the long run, … the bet we're taking is that this is going to be less expensive­, and more sustainable."