Scaling the ivory tower to find coal answers
In coal fight, campus activists must drill deep to reach proper authorities.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - 15:24
Discovering the source of energy for a large research university like Columbia is a lot like drilling for oil: it requires extreme dedication, some fumbling around in the darkness and knowledge of fancy geographic mapping systems. And when you discover that information, it may or may not lead to a jackpot of the good stuff.
In my case, it did not. After a week of scouring the Columbia University website and countless phone calls and e-mails, I came to the realization that my fruitless efforts to debunk the myth behind energy at Columbia were not, in fact, reflective of my failures as a journalist. My struggle was a lot like the struggles of campus activists across the country who have joined the Sierra Club in a fight to eliminate coal-fired power plants at American campuses. The bureaucracy of large universities presents a huge impediment to implementing sustainable energy initiatives. The simple task of speaking with the right person can be discouraging for even the peskiest journalist or activist.
I started with the University's Office of Environmental Stewardship, a fairly recent addition to the administration dedicated to reducing the university's consumption of resources, as well as implementing the PlaNYC challenge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent by 2017. Great start, I thought. They're bound to tell me all about that mysterious power plant below the Schapiro Center. (Check out the photo gallery link.)
But the office's assistant vice president was away at a conference in Vermont, and the other staffers did not respond to my repeated attempts to schedule an interview. The beautiful symbolism of this situation did not escape me. I transferred to Columbia this year from Middlebury College, which topped the Sierra Club's ranking of Cool Schools last year and came in just above the University of Vermont this year. Middlebury's progressive woodchip biomass plant, which I had the pleasure of touring for an environmental geology course, went online last year. It seemed fitting that sustainability representatives from Columbia would be back in the heart of radically environmental America: Vermont.
Next: Columbia's (in)famous student activists. They were bound to know the minute details of Columbia's energy sourcing, and have protested them many a time. A group of CU Democrats, who set up a table at the 350 Day of Action on Oct. 24 to get signatures for cap-and-trade legislation, said they didn't actually know where Columbia got its energy, but they were interested all the same. The Columbia University Renewable Energy Society (CURES) gave the same reply.
Next stop: The Earth Institute. If the administration wasn't going to be my source for answers, I was sure these guys would. As the academic research branch of environmental affairs at Columbia, these scientists would surely tell me all about how they've been collaborating with the administration to implement their groundbreaking research at the university level. As it turns out, these guys are really busy. A renowned professor in the environmental engineering department was kind enough to block out a narrow window in his schedule to talk to me about his research, but the simple act of finding his office proved too difficult for me, and I missed my window. Failure #3.
Last stop: Facilities. After navigating a complex org chart of positions and a tangled web of departmental websites, I was able to find some encouraging information about sustainable energy initiatives. The newly renovated academic building Knox Hall features four geothermal wells, which deliver 95 tons of heating and cooling capacity and reduce the building's energy consumption by 50 to 60 percent.
I also discovered that the esoteric physical plant at Columbia does, in fact, exist, and provides a significant amount of coal-fired heating and cooling energy for the school. But the majority of my questions remained unanswered by the communications branch of facilities, which, like the rest of the university, is apparently extremely busy.
Whether the university plans to replace the campus boilers with geothermal wells on a large scale or continue conducting business as it does now is still a mystery to me. Perhaps Columbia even has an orchard of willow trees secretly growing in an upstate farm to provide woodchips for a biomass plant.
Who knows? It's a rhetorical, yet purely functional question. No one seems to know. But what seems obvious is that implementing sustainable energy initiatives at a place like Columbia is comparable to the actual formation of fossil fuel. It requires tons of pressure, takes many, many years and, most frustratingly, is underground.
Thumbnail photo: takomabibelot/Flickr
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