The country's coal powerhouse
Most of the coal used to generate electricity in the United States comes from Wyoming. With that said, is it possible for the University of Wyoming to become a carbon-neutral university?
Tuesday, October 27, 2009 - 19:05
COAL CLOSEUP: A truck unloads coal at the University of Wyoming's Central Energy Facility on a snowy day in October. (Photo: Jessica Nape)
The state of Wyoming produces more coal than any other state in the country. In the year 2008, mines here produced over 466 million tons of coal -- that's more coal than Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky combined.
With those numbers in mind, it should not be any surprise to find out that the University of Wyoming has its own coal-burning facility. While the University of Wyoming's Central Energy Facility does not actually produce electricity for the university, it does generate chilled water to cool and steam to heat the campus buildings. In fact, approximately 23,000 tons of coal are consumed by the University of Wyoming each year at this facility.
Sometimes if you drive by UW's Central Energy Facility at the just the right time, you can actually see the coal trucks being unloaded. This is coal straight from the mines of this state.
But it is important to realize that these numbers are just coal for the university's heating and cooling purposes -- they do not include the coal burned at other power plants nearby to generate electricity for items such as dormitory lights, library computers and classroom projectors. Furthermore, that 23,000 tons of coal does not include the natural gas and fuel oil also needed to keep the boilers at UW's Central Energy Facility running as well.
Most places in the United States are not quite as "local" with their coal as we are here in Wyoming. That coal is shipped in one of two ways. Either it is loaded on trucks or the rail cars of trains like the Union Pacific and taken across state borders (39 states in the country use Wyoming coal to generate their electricity), or that coal is actually burned in a power plant here in Wyoming and then the electricity is moved though the power lines of our aging grid system. The Jim Bridger Power Plant near Rock Springs, Wyo., is one such example of a coal-burning power plant that exports energy elsewhere in the country.
As a result, it is no wonder that the Sierra Club is taking aim at university campuses to break away from our coal dependence. It's a dirty game. Coal is mined from the ground and burned in a power plant to generate electricity. The end result is a whole lot of carbon dioxide and a changing environment. "Clean coal" isn't the question. If it's carbon based, it's adding to climate change no matter how clean or dirty the coal may be.
So where exactly does the University of Wyoming fit into this picture? Being situated in the biggest coal-producing state of the nation, we are literally right on top of the hot bed in the coal debate. Coal means jobs and money. Coal also means electricity, lights, heat and hot water. So does this mean there is no hope for the University of Wyoming to wean itself from using coal to heat our campus buildings and water?
No too long ago, the President of the University of Wyoming, Tom Buchanan, signed a Climate Action Plan aimed at making the university carbon-neutral by the year 2050. In addition to this initiative, the University of Wyoming has been exploring options to invest and develop wind energy and other renewable alternatives. Some of the goals according to the Climate Action Plan are to "investigate and implement integration of renewable energy sources, such as solar photovoltaics, solar hot water or building integrated wind, in new facilities to offset a portion of the building energy" and "investigate the cost and feasibility of offsetting 15 percent of campus electricity with renewable energy credits." At this moment, infrastructure, money and feasibility are definitely a few key issues standing in the way of making renewable resources a reality.
In the meantime, students are being encouraged to become more conscientious of their energy usage while the state of Wyoming is also taking steps forward. According to the American Wind Energy Association, Wyoming ranked fifth in the nation for states adding megawatts of windpower in the last three months.
Things are starting to change at college campuses and even in places as coal-rich as Wyoming. But there are a few thousand institutions of higher education throughout the United States. The Sierra Club's list of university-run coal plants numbers at sixty. And here's the point: as I sit here typing on my laptop, the light bulbs are glowing and I'm using electricity. That electricity is most likely coming from coal. The coal boils water, the steam turns positively and negatively charged turbines, and the current generated is then sent over wires throughout our power grid. That electricity somehow amazingly and magically ends up at my fingertips. It also ends up in front of you on your computer screen as well.
I used to take it for granted. I don't take it for granted so much anymore.
So the lesson is this: even if the university you go to, or went to, or live by or know about isn't on the Sierra Club's list of 22 targeted universities, electricity is being used, and coal -- most likely from Wyoming -- is being burned, no matter where you are. The Sierra Club is taking steps to do something about it. Are you?
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