In a big win for the Campuses Beyond Coal campaign in Pennsylvania Penn State's Board of Trustees finally and officially approved plans to convert the university's more than 80-year-old steam plant off coal.
Several months ago university officials requested funding for the transition to natural gas, but still wouldn't commit publicly to switch fuel sources in order to avoid costly upgrades the plant would need to meet forthcoming EPA regulations on polluting facilities.
The plant, which sits right in the middle of campus, produces steam heat for 270 buildings on campus. The university says the switch will lower carbon emissions by 37 percent - an important step in their overall goal of reducing emissions 17.5 percent below 2005-06 levels by next year.
Over the past year and a half students collected more than 2000 petition signatures and photos, generated dozens of media hits, hosted rallies, built coalitions with faculty and alumni and held several meetings with top administrators demanding the university end their use of dangerous and dirty coal on their campus. Then, when students learned the school was considering installing expensive coal scrubbers to meet new regulations their efforts became even more urgent as the expense of adding scrubbers would have locked the school into coal dependence for years to come.
The transition to natural gas, which the university expects to be complete by 2014, is ideally only an interim step towards becoming a 100% clean energy campus. Eventually, students hope to see the university run entirely on renewable energy - including both the energy they produce on campus and the power they purchase from the electricity grid.
The Beyond Coal campaign at Penn State launched more than a year ago in fall 2009 and follows a strong history of student activism on energy issues at the school. Previous student efforts led to the university's first-ever emissions reductions commitments and major sustainability projects including the third largest green power purchase of any university in the country, multi-million dollar investments in efficiency for existing buildings and a pledge to make all new buildings LEED-certified.
This commitment makes them the ninth university to pledge to end their coal use on campus since the Sierra Student Coalition started the national effort to move our nation's universities entirely of coal-generated power. It falls on the heels of Missouri University of Science and Technology which recently announced their plans to move off coal in favor of a renewable geothermal energy system.