Student group wants pledge from ‘U’ to dump coal

A student group at the University of Minnesota wants the school to set a time line for phasing out the burning of coal on campus.

Students Beyond Coal, part of a national Sierra Club campaign, will stage a rally today against the fuel, which is a major source of greenhouse gases and other pollution.

“We want to support what the University has done already” to reduce its coal use and energy consumption, said Siri Simons, a sophomore environmental studies student, “and we want to pressure them to keep moving in that direction.”

But is completely cutting coal from the equation realistic?

Someday maybe, but for now the University says it still relies on coal to help provide reliable and cost-effective energy on campus.

The University buys electricity from Xcel Energy, but it operates two steam plants on its Twin Cities campus for heating and cooling. The school managed to cut the carbon footprint of those steam plants by 25 percent between 1998 and 2008, and much of that decrease came from reducing the amount of coal going into the boilers.

Until the late 1990s, coal was the steam plants’ primary fuel source. Around 2000 the school updated both facilities. The St. Paul steam plant now runs almost exclusively on natural gas, with fuel oil as a backup for very cold days when gas is in short supply. And a boiler installed then in Minneapolis allowed that plant to start running on a blend of gas, coal and biofuels.

The steam plants’ emission permits allow it to generate up to 30 percent of its energy from coal or fuel oil. The rest comes from natural gas or biofuels such as oat hulls, which accounted for about 5 percent of the University’s energy production last year.

“We continue to look at ways to operate the plant as less of a polluter,” said Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president of facilities management for the Twin Cities campus.

However, as the school looks to further reduce coal usage, it’s limited by costs, technology and the supply of alternatives, Berthelsen said.

The price of natural gas tends to significantly fluctuate, and going exclusively to that fuel exposes the university to more budget risk. The school would buy more oat hulls, he said, but it can’t find enough sellers. And with its current boiler, the hulls can only be burned in a blend along with coal.

So if not now, when?

University President Robert Bruininks has signed a pledge to make the campus carbon-neutral, but the school hasn’t given itself a deadline for meeting the goal. Students Beyond Coal leaders say it’s time to start talking specifics with regard to phasing out coal burning on campus.

“Coal is America’s dirtiest form of energy,” said Adam Macon, a Sierra Club organizer who helped form the club. “It’s an archaic form of energy that we need to move beyond.”

Macon said they understand it won’t be an overnight fix and that solutions need to be worked through, but they want a commitment from the ‘U’ to move on as soon as possible. The group made their case to the school’s sustainability coordinator earlier this week, and it’s written a letter requesting a meeting with President Bruininks as well.

“I think it’s great that the students are leading the effort to bring the University to a position of leadership on clean energy,” said State Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, who will speak at today’s student event (2:30 p.m. at Northrup Mall). “Coal-burning plants are a 19th century technology. Their time has really passed. It just makes sense for a leader like the University to embrace that future.”

Originally published Nov. 13, 2009, on

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