UNC Chapel Hill Coal Free by 2020

As part of the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal Campaign," UNC Chapel Hill seeks to be a leader in a coal-free future.
UNC Speech Photo by University of North Carolina

Chancellor Holden Thorp announces from UNC's rooftop garden the university's plan to be coal-free by 2020. From left, Bruce Nilles of Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal Campaign," Thorp, Tim Toben, Chair of Energy Task Force, and Stewart Boss, student member of "Beyond Coal Campaign."

Photo Courtesy of University of North Carolina

Speaking from the grass-covered rooftop of a parking garage, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp, announced that the university would stop using coal by the end of the decade. Universities, Thorp said in his May 4 address, “must lead the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy.”

North Carolina schools are, in fact, leading the way. Only eight miles down the road, Duke University reported in 2009 that it had reduced its coal consumption by 70 percent.

As part of the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal Campaign,” UNC Chapel Hill committed itself to carry out this plan and switch to other alternative energy sources.

Coal, one of the dirtiest energy sources, powers 50 percent of electricity generation in the U.S. Coal is also responsible for nearly 20 percent of all global greenhouse gases [1].

“Unless you set a deadline for ending coal usage, you’re not going to get to it.”

Recognizing the dangers of continued reliance on coal, the UNC chancellor organized an energy task force to research and propose energy alternatives. It includes students, faculty, community members, and the state director of the Sierra Club. Tim Toben, task force chairman, who spoke during the address, described the nine month process during which the group determined that 60 percent of campus emissions come from the nearby coal-fired cogeneration plant. Although Carolina’s cogeneration plant is one of the cleanest burning in the country, it still burns coal and “unless you set a deadline for ending coal usage, you’re not going to get to it,” Toben remarked.

Despite the plant's efficiency, a new alternative energy source, biomass, will be introduced into the boilers. Biomass consists of plant material or animal waste. There are two main sources, either growing plants specifically for energy use or plant waste. Biomass resources burn cleaner than coal, but raising corn or fast-growing forests still involves intensive agriculture.

The university will take its first steps beginning later this spring, adding dried wood pellets to the coal and gradually increasing the amount of woody biomass until coal is completely phased out. No later than 2015, and perhaps as early as 2012 the university plans to replace 20 percent of its coal with biomass [2].

Still to be determined is where the university will get its biomass. One difficulty with biomass is the transportation. Shipping raw biomass typically is not cost-effective over 50 miles [3]. Acknowledging both supply difficulties and the question of whether biomass will work in the existing boilers, Thorp said, “we can achieve our goal in ten years, by using the same kind of creativity and ingenuity that our great energy services staff has used in the past.”

Coal Free Photo by E.M. Fields

Student representatives of UNC's "Beyond Coal Campaign" pose during Earth Action Day on April 10, 2010. Actions taken by students to rid the school of its coal use encouraged the university to pursue alternative energy sources.

Photo by E.M. Fields

The university is already receiving high marks for its efforts to become more sustainable. According to the College Sustainability Report Card, a service that scores colleges nationwide in categories such as green building, transportation, food and recycling, and endowment transparency, UNC Chapel Hill received an overall grade of A-.  Those universities receiving an A- or better earn the highest award of “College Sustainability Leader” given by the report card. Only 25 other institutions are recipients of the award.

Student activism on campus is largely responsible for both the high grade and recent efforts conducted by the university. Concerned students felt the university was not doing enough to achieve its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050 and lobbied for the administration to do more.

The commitment of the university to reduce its coal use has attracted national attention, including the support of James Hansen, climate change expert at NASA. 

Hansen sent a message to be read at the announcement of the 2020 goal, which promoted UNC Chapel Hill as “a model for how students and a university can work together with a civil constructive approach to ending our national addiction to coal.” Citing UNC’s “rational approach to problem solving,” Hansen said this model could be used to “somehow overcome the uncivil discourse that has infected current national politics.”


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