Students Take Action to Move Michigan State Off Coal
On April 11, student activists with Michigan State University's Beyond Coal campaign held a day of action to highlight the health risks of burning coal and the benefits of investing in renewable energy. The school's T.B. Simon Power Plant is the largest on-campus coal-burning power plant in the country.
The rally was held two days before the university's Board of Trustees met to vote on the university's Energy Transition Plan, which MSU Beyond Coal considers deeply flawed. The plan's goal is to eventually reach 100 percent renewable energy, but it sets an interim goal of only 40 percent renewable energy by 2030. Michigan State currently receives less than two percent of its power from renewable sources.
Holding a banner representing more than 10,000 student petitions they collected asking the administration to retire the T.B. Simon plant, Beyond Coal activists gathered around the Sierra Club's traveling giant inhaler to drive home the point that burning coal causes respiratory illness and asthma attacks. They also held aloft 37 10-foot-tall sunflowers to represent the 37 deaths per year in Ingham County from coal-related illnesses.
Talya Tavor, below, a senior and MSU Beyond Coal leader who has suffered from asthma since she was two years old, said the university should set a date to close the T.B. Simon plant, which the Energy Transition Plan fails to do.
"I know firsthand how awful it is to have an asthma attack so bad that I was hospitalized and stuck in a bed with machines helping me breathe, rather than being in class or out with friends," she said.
"Coal causes hundreds of thousands of asthma attacks every year. Michigan State should be a leader by cutting its toxic pollution and switching to healthier energy sources, starting now."
Later in the day, students held a Clean Energy Forum with wind and solar energy experts and green building professionals from across the state discussing how Michigan can create jobs and improve the economy by being a clean energy leader.
Beyond Coal activist Callie Bruley, below at right, moderated the forum, and author, educator, and 350.org founder Bill McKibben, below at left, joined the via video hookup. McKibben highlighted the importance of student-led campaigns like MSU Beyond Coal, and urged schools to be clean energy leaders.
The proposed Energy Transition Plan was drafted by a steering committee that did not include student feedback as the university had promised, and was heavily influenced by a report from a firm that specializes in building coal plants.
"The university's plan fails to address the urgent need to retire the aging coal plant on campus, and lacks any concrete steps for implementing real clean energy solutions," said junior and MSU Beyond Coal member Paul Mooney, below. "They say this is about getting MSU to 100 percent clean energy, but we just don't see it in this plan. How can they say 100 percent clean energy and ignore the fact that they own a coal plant?"
On April 13, two days after the MSU Beyond Coal day of action, Michigan State's Board of Trustees voted to adopt the Energy Transition plan as written.
"We are very disappointed that the Board chose to move this so-called plan forward," Talya Tavor said in a press release the next day. "This was an opportunity for MSU to be a national clean energy leader, but instead the transition plan simply puts off any real investments or dedication to clean energy to an unknown future date with no accountability." Below, Tavor uses her own inhaler with the giant inhaler as a backdrop.
On April 18, the Michigan State administration held an online forum to discuss the newly approved Energy Transition Plan, which student members of the plan's drafting committee refused to sign. Many students saw the online medium as a way for the university to try and avoid tough questions and shield themselves from criticism.
The forum was not widely publicized by the university, but students worked with national organizations to place full-page ads for the forum in the major campus newspapers, urging students to ask tough questions about the plan's failure to set a retirement date for the T.B. Simon plant, below, and to put forth student plans to ramp up energy efficiency on campus.
Tavor met with university president Lou Anna K. Simon in March and proposed to create a student-led group to write a new energy transition plan that will achieve 100 percent renewable energy at MSU on a much more accelerated timeline. Tavor said Simon endorsed the idea.
In the aftermath of the Board of Trustees' endorsement of the Energy Transition Plan, students officially started a Clean Energy Working Group that will investigate the full gamut of clean energy options for the university and make recommendations that fill in the many gaps of the current plan.
"Real investments in clean, renewable energy would not only improve our air, but save the university money and ensure better financial stability for MSU's energy costs over the long term," said Tavor. "We shouldn't wait to make these investments when we can be a real leader now."
Take action: Tell the MSU Board of Trustees it's time to end coal at Michigan State.
All photos by Nick Bryant.