• September 5, 2015

Coal-Burning Campuses Face Increased Pressure to Find Alternative Fuels

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

Coal-Burning Campuses Face Increased Pressure to Find Alternative Fuels 1

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.

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."


1. 11211250 - January 11, 2010 at 07:46 am

Remember that Monty Python skit "How Not to Be seen?" Several people were hiding behind bushes in a field and the narrator had to try to find them. If they were found they were blown up. Of course, no matter where they hid they were blown up. For example:

Hiding nearby is Mr. E.V. Lambert of Homeleigh, The Burrows, Oswestry, who has presented the narrator with "a poser" by choosing a very clever way of not being seen ("We do not know which bush he is behind"), although, according to the narrator, "we can soon find out." The left bush explodes, then the right one, and finally the middle bush is blown up, and mixed with the noise of the explosion comes the scream of Mr Lambert. "Yes, it was the middle one." [from Wikipedia]

It seems no matter which way we turn we are doomed when it comes to energy. And we are on about a ten-year cycle where we get very serious about finding alternatives to fossil fuels but then everyone gets exhausted by the hunt and spending millions and millions in the process and then we put it on the back burner until some new crisis kicks in.

One note: I lived in State College for 15 years and each year I had to get on a ladder and scrub gutters and downspouts because they would be covered with a black residue from burnt coal. I lived 45 years elsewhere and had never seen that problem before or since.

Seems everybody wants a cleaner environment, better education, better roads, more efficient cars, better health care, risk-free security, an improved economy... and all without raising taxes. What the heck is Obama doing about it?

2. 11160741 - January 11, 2010 at 09:45 am

I have seen that our institutions of higher education have facilities organizations that are very in tune with what they need to do economically and environmentally regarding energy that is used for the facilities that they build and maintain.

I have seen that it is not necessary for Presidents to sign a climate commitment to be economically and environmentally responsible in the operations of their campuses.

Campuses I am involved with do not advertise their sustainability efforts, but they are being very sustainable and are involved with all types of alternative energy sources For activists to come in and say that those administators are not doing enough is an uninformed position and not realistic.

I commend our Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Facilities Managers for being sustainable without being told to and without signing a statement withg nwhich they cannot agree. I commend them for working within real budgets that are directly tied to the cost of tuition, trying to do what is right and yet keep tuition down.

Environmental activists need to realize that it takes many years to change from one set of energy sources to another set of energey sources, and it also takes dollars that we may not have.

I invite anyone to talk to a Facilities Director and their Vice President of Finance and Administation at any major institution and get the real scoop on how they are being sustainable and doing it within the budgets that they have.

3. mfklinkner - January 11, 2010 at 09:56 am

There is a start-up biomass manufacturing firm at
102 SW58 Hwy
P.O. Box 177
Centerview, MO 64019
660.656.3780 phone
They are doing innovative production of fuel pellets using saw dust, switchgrass, etc. They have been working with the local electric company in Kansas City performing tests with fuel pellets vs. coal. They may be able to offer a viable alternative to burning coal at your universities.

4. ollietheowl - January 11, 2010 at 12:01 pm

How about renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and water? I did not see any mention of these important sources of energy. They don't necessarily have the potential to fully replace coal on these campuses, but they can be part of an 'energy mix' solution. I know Brandeis University, where I study, has a solar panels project in the works. And many other countries - Germany among them - have a huge % of their energy supplied through clean and renewable sources such as wind and solar.

I think it's a major flaw of this article not to provide information on these sources. It's as if, well, it's hard to replace coal, and that's that. I do believe that the answer is more complex than this.

5. scarlson - January 11, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Wind, solar, and water can provide (intermittent) electrical power, but they do not provide steam.

6. 11250382 - January 11, 2010 at 12:37 pm

and tuition rises.

7. greenbuff10 - January 11, 2010 at 05:18 pm

Mr. Carlson,
This is a great article highlighting the many incentives and barriers that colleges face when moving towards a more sustainable operating structure. There is, however, one incorrect fact regarding your statement:

"Activists galvanized by the Sierra Club are active on coal-burning campuses like Binghamton University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities."

The University of Colorado at Boulder does not have a coal-burning plant on its campus. CU would fit more in line with the University of Southern California because we also purchase most of our energy from a grid heavily relient on unsustainable fossil fuels.

I know this fact is seemingly minor, but the difference in the source of the coal presents very different barriers and opportunities for reducing our carbon footprint!

8. jmp27 - January 11, 2010 at 05:51 pm

Nuclear power is the cleanest, most abundant practical fuel we have. Coal puts far more nuclear radiation into the evnironment (as well as other toxins) each year than the nuclear industry. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste
We seem to accept radiation from coal but fear radiation from a safer industry - nuclear power. Coal miners die every year from accidents and lung disease, as well as the general public. How many have died from U.S. nuclear power - five workers I believe.
Our logic of using coal and not nuclear is twisted.

9. scarlson - January 11, 2010 at 05:54 pm

Thanks for the alert. We'll make a change.

10. bothsidesnow - January 11, 2010 at 07:39 pm

and then there's Washington University in St Louis, which now has on its board of trustees the CEOs of two different coal companies, as well as the retired CEO of Laclede Gas, and the CEOs of Monsanto & Sigma-Aldrich

the sky on their frontpage tells one story: http://wustl.edu/
seemingly without irony...
their logic appears here: http://cleancoal.wustl.edu/

11. sfenlason - January 12, 2010 at 08:54 am

Check out Ball State University "Going Geothermal" http://cms.bsu.edu/About/Geothermal.aspx

12. laoshi - January 13, 2010 at 02:12 am

"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."

Dr. Mann is a con-artist. The hockey-stick graph was done by adding computer code to inflate the numbers during the fossil-fuel era. All of this development was probably done in the comfort of his coal-driven, steam-heated office.

Granted, coal does make the sky a little black. But it certainly isn't responsible for the "temperatures shooting up" in modern Pennsylvania. If there was global warming, we wouldn't need heat energy in the first place.

13. optimysticynic - January 13, 2010 at 01:08 pm

I am at a coal-burning campus (public university in the Big Coal state of KY) and the entire campus stinks, the closer to the coal-plants, the worse. We have just gone "smoke-free", but we are still subject to massive pollution that is obvious, aversive and carcinogenic every day (worse in cold weather, too.) We are in the midst of a well-advertised Green campaign; however, no one is allowed to say a word against coal, since the state funds the University and the state is, um, Big Coal.

14. tattaway - January 13, 2010 at 01:55 pm

Submitting a correction: Please note that Sherwood Wilson worked at Ohio University in Athens, not Ohio State University, prior to Virginia Tech. Ohio University is a leader in research on environmentaly safe power through its Ohio Coal Research Center that focuses on developing cleaner coal technologies.

15. laoshi - January 14, 2010 at 03:53 am

Coal-burning doesn't have to be dirty anymore. Have these coal-burning campus facilities managers considered modernizing their power plants to clean-coal technology?

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