“Oregon Deserves Clean Energy” read the banner fluttering above a group of students and local citizens gathered in Eugene, Oregon yesterday. They were part of one of dozens of actions held nationwide to promote cleaner alternatives to coal power on college campuses.
“Old energy sources like coal are holding us back from a prosperous clean energy future,” says Cesia Kearns of the Oregon Sierra Club. “We cannot let coal stand in the way.”
That’s the central message of a growing movement of students and activists determined to topple the coal industry’s influence on national energy policy, starting with their own campuses.
The Eugene event was part of a national day of action sponsored by the Sierra Student Coalition, a student-run activist group that recently released a report highlighting coal use on college campuses. It helped galvanize a coast-to-coast movement by student groups to push a unifying message: Americans are ready to move beyond coal.
The campaign focused on the 60 U.S. colleges that have on-campus coal plants. Students at Ohio University, for example, organized a photo petition asking their administration to shift the university to 100-percent reliance on clean energy.
Taking on coal on their own campuses is a way "to help students organize and yet be part of this much larger issue, says Kim Teplitzky, a coordinator for the Student Sierra Coalition. “Universities are supposed to be models for society. You can’t be a leader if you’re still stuck in the old technology. We want to build model institutions to showcase new technology and new ways to meet our energy needs.”
Many of the coal-reliant colleges are signatories to the American Colleges and Universities Presidents' Climate Commitment, a pledge to seek carbon neutrality. The pledge says that "campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society."
By signing, schools commit to developing an action plan with a timeline. “That’s where we see them dragging their feet,” Teplitzky says. “We want to build on those earlier successes and momentum. As long as they’re burning coal on campus, they can’t be green.”
The student campaign is already changing campus policies. Teplitzky points to Indiana’s Ball State University as a success story: In February, the school redirected funding previously earmarked for replacing a coal-fired boiler to a new geothermal system that will heat more than 40 campus buildings.
Students across the country are also pushing their representatives to pass strong legislation promoting clean energy this fall. Organizers with student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) have helped students on 33 campuses generate over 2,300 calls to Senate offices. They have made it clear that this is just the beginning of the call-in effort. “Young people really get that we can’t beat global warming in the U.S. unless we beat coal,” says Teplitzky.
After their rally in Eugene, students and community members gathered for a hearing on the Northwest Power Plan, a document that will help determine energy policy in the Northwest for the next 20 years. Planning to speak out for a plan that would eliminate the Northwest’s dependence on coal, they arrived at the hearing prepared to show that students in the area are already leading the way. “It’s our responsibility to humanity to do all we can now to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” says Katherine Philipson, a senior at the university of Oregon.