Millions of years ago, dinosaurs died off and left humans a parting gift—a vast supply of fossil fuels. Coal, natural gas, and oil are the black gold upon which society’s standard of living is built on today, and account for more than 80% of the United States energy consumption. Since the Industrial Revolution, they have been the most well accepted form of energy also happening to be completely unacceptable.
“Unacceptable” is not an opinion, it is a fact. The carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is just around 400 parts per million (ppm) and rising, while the scientifically considered safe level is 350 ppm. “Safe” refers to the fact that earth’s atmosphere is the one chemical experiment we humans only get one chance with.
Here on campus, the Students for Environmental Concerns (SECS) group understand this. We have been at the forefront of the efforts to hold UIUC to their commitments made in the Illinois Climate Action Plan. Among these are promises to transition Abbott Power Plant off of coal by 2017 and to build a campus wind turbine by 2011.
Maybe you don’t know about Abbott Power plant—it is the on campus, University-owned, 70 year old coal and natural gas burning facility. SECS has been utilizing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get more information about Abbott and campaigning for an end to Abbott’s coal use by 2013, which is the soonest feasible date. The plant is in need of renovation anyway and would transition to burning solely natural gas. This is really the lesser of two evils, considering natural gas produces roughly half as much carbon dioxide as coal but still has its own set of issues with fracking and methane leakage from gas wells.
Why don’t we set our sights higher, beyond simply “the lesser of two evils?” Well, we have had them set higher. For seven years, we’ve had our sights on the promise of a University-owned wind turbine. Wind is the reigning champion of the renewable world—when well-placed, it is even more cost effective than coal, especially if one considers externalized costs. In this year alone, SECS had several strategic planning meetings, made flyers, and organized a rally for our wind turbine campaign.
One of our problems is NIMBY. This is where residents are all for an initiative until it comes close to home and literally stands for “Not In My Back Yard.” They want it; they just don’t want to see it. Key example: Urbana.
Some Urbana residents have in this past year voiced their opposition to the University’s wind turbine. Urbana cannot stand to have it less than 1,200 feet away from the nearest resident (the site is all of 200 feet too close). They are not against the turbine itself in any way, just so long as it’s not in their backyard. These being the same residents that happily live outside of Urbana’s city limits to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes.
Urbana claims to have had a legal case, but in reality, the city’s ordinances don’t apply to state owned property and their claims would have never held up in court. Nevertheless, in the last few weeks, the administration has given in to Urbana’s complaints and killed the project, despite having $2 million in grant money and $640,000 committed to the project by the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) which is tasked with allocating funds from campus Green Fees.
This turbine would have gone up at about 50% of its total cost for the University. It would have paid for itself in about ten years and generated revenue (and not to mention an unprecedented learning opportunity) for the University for the more than twenty. This represents a better return on investment than that of the U of I Foundation.
So why did the University kill this project and offer the students investment in something else? I seriously doubt that Urbana was the cause, although they may have been the tipping point. If UIUC had wanted a wind turbine, we would have had one. We had the bid, the funds, and everything we needed but the will from the people that “matter.” So the question is: why didn’t these people want the wind turbine?
I’ll tell you why: we weren’t loud enough to disturb the status quo. Efforts from RSOs like SECS alone were not enough to push this project through. People have other things to do, and it’s easy to believe that our efforts won’t make a difference. Well, in this case, they would have. Urbana was obnoxious, Facilities and Services wasn’t motivated, and one wind turbine by itself can’t generate enough revenue to really get the board of trustees’ attention.
They don’t understand the world situation regarding climate change, that UIUC as a world class institution needs to visibly show its commitment to protect the future, and that they have just passed up the perfect dramatic opportunity to do so. Because we-the students, faculty, and community- didn’t realize they were that ignorant of the facts and that unwilling to do anything disruptive.