The Sierra Club wants colleges to stop using coal to power their campuses. Its Beyond Coal campaign has found some passionate supporters, but also some administrators who have done little to get greener.

“Appalachia is tearing the tops off mountains, destroying one of oldest mountain ranges in the world, trying to get the last vestiges of coal out,” says Bruce Nilles, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign director.

“Coal is the largest contributor to global warming in the United States. The most important thing we can do in the next two decades is get ourselves off coal,” Nilles says. The Sierra Club campaign is focusing on 60 college campuses that rely on coal-burning plants.

“We want to showcase how universities can do something different; they can actually do what naysayers say we can’t do. Yes, we can fix this problem when we put our smartest minds to work,” Nilles says.

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., is leading the way toward a cleaner energy campus.

“Coal is the cheapest source of energy, but it is also the most risky,” says Tim Fahey, professor in the school’s Department of Natural Resources.

Fahey spoke in January at the celebration of Cornell’s Combined Heat and Power Plant (CHPP), a facility that primarily uses natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, and emits no mercury or sulfur dioxide. In addition to providing electricity, the plant captures the heat generated by the turbines to produce steam heat. Cornell is aiming to eliminate the use of coal by mid-2011.

Cornell had been burning more than 60,000 tons of coal a year. That’s been reduced by 80 percent since the CHPP went online.

The new plant is also a step forward in Cornell’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 319,000 metric tons to net-zero level by 2050.

“The Sierra Club was kicking off their campaign, so we said, hey, we need to team up here and be an example,” says Dan Roth, coordinator for sustainability at Cornell.

Cornell has the good fortune of natural resources that give it energy options. For example, since 1999 its buildings have been cooled with water from the cold, nearly 500-foot-deep waters of Cayuga Lake.

Efficiency equals savings

While conservation and benevolence may be factors in going green, ultimately it’s also a good business decision.  

“By 2007, we had invested $10 million in energy conservation. Now we are saving $7 million a year,” Roth says.

But a transition to cleaner fuel is not as simple as just declaring, “Let’s go green.”


“There is a downside: We had to lay off coal handlers and hire people experienced in a high-tech natural gas facility. There are people and jobs and skillsets that don’t change overnight,” Roth says.


But Roth says Cornell is not doing something other universities couldn’t do in some form.


Financing, state tax breaks and federal dollars are available to help higher education move beyond fossil fuels, he says.

“For anybody to say coal is the best long-term solution, is just not thinking,” Roth says.


The Sierra Club said the University of Wisconsin-Madison is moving from coal to biomass, and Ball State in Muncie, Ind., is converting from coal to geothermal. They are urging huge campuses including UCLA, Penn State and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to move more quickly away from coal. 

Many campuses don’t have their own power plants but instead get their energy from companies that primarily use coal. Student activists are pushing for changes on those campuses as well.

Peter Murrey, a student at Washington University in St. Louis, says climate action is his generation’s fight. Just as campus demonstrations helped end the Vietnam War and dismantle apartheid in South Africa, Murrey believes protests will force action on global warming.

“We are going to be inheriting the mess that previous generations have made, and we are not going to stand for it anymore,” Murrey says.

“Look at the news reports. We are standing up in Missouri, in West Virginia, in Sydney, Australia. We demand real, responsible energy policy. We are going to be victorious,” he says.

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Coal gets kicked off campus
Sierra Club urges colleges to find another way to generate electricity.