The Coming of the Coal-Free Campus

Why students across the country are asking schools to clean up their act.
Coal Plant photo by Davipt

Photo by Davipt.

When you think about the typical college campus, a towering coal plant belching  pollutants like mercury and fly ash is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. At more than 60 colleges and universities across the country, though, that’s just what you’ll find. Virginia Tech’s coal plant burns more than 43,000 tons of coal each year, for example, and students often wake to find ash coating their windows.

But college students across the United States are asking their schools to clean up their act. More than 30 campuses have teamed up with the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign to move their schools toward 100 percent clean energy solutions. Already, 16 student groups have gotten commitments from their schools to become coal-free. According to coal campaign coordinator Kim Teplitzky, several more campuses look poised to join the ranks when the academic year begins in the fall.

Five-plus years of student organizing paid off in 2010, when Cornell University announced plans to become coal-free as early as this year. The school has already reduced coal usage by 80 percent.  At Ball State University in Indiana, a switch from coal to geothermal power will soon completely eliminate the school’s reliance on coal, cutting its carbon footprint in half and saving $2 million in the process.

Other schools have been more resistant to pressure from student activist groups. University of Iowa students have been working for the better part of a decade to move the school off coal. Graham Jordison, who now works for the Sierra Club as Iowa’s campus organizer, got involved as a student when he realized the school’s on-campus plant was dumping coal ash near the banks of the Des Moines River. Though Jordison cites small victories—such as getting schools to purchase renewable energy credits and increase energy efficiency—the fight is far from over. “It’s not an easy path,” he admits, “but on each campus we’ve made progress.” 

Jen Horton wrote this article for New Livelihoods, the Fall 2011 issue of YES! Magazine.