Moving Champaign-Urbana Beyond Coal

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We have become a nation hopelessly addicted
to dirty energy. Here in Urbana-Champaign
at the University of Illinois we are no
different. Despite recent talk of a possible
wind turbine, our campus still has its own
glaring link to dirty energy and coal. The
story of coal at the University of Illinois starts
with the belching smoke stacks just East of
Neil Street known as Abbott Power Plant.
Abbott, built in 1941, largely contributes to
the heating and electricity needs of the University,
with any additional electricity purchased
from utility companies. Abbott has
the capability to burn all coal, up to 80%
natural gas, or a combination of both. However,
coal remains the principal fuel source
for Abbott due to its less expensive price
compared to natural gas.
In a recent report commissioned by the
University, indications are that Abbott will
need around $200 million in renovations
in order to maintain burning the status
quo, with a large chunk of these renovations
connected to coal. Coal burning at
Abbott currently accounts for around 30%
of the campus’s carbon footprint, amounting
to the largest source of carbon emissions
for the University. In light of these fiscal
and environmental worries, Students
for Environmental Concerns and representatives
from Sierra Club launched the
Beyond Coal campaign in mid-March to
show the University there is an alternative
to dirty energy.
With energy conservation and increased
combustion of natural gas, the University
has the opportunity to become a coal free
campus. It will not be easy finding ways to
cut energy use on campus considering the
University has already admirably cut 9% in
just a few years. Despite this success, the
campus still has the problem of using too
much energy. Problems of this scope call for
innovative solutions; the U of I has a storied
history of innovative solutions and now is
the time for a breakthrough on sustainability.
The transition to natural gas at first may
seem like a cheap sacrifice by still allowing
the combustion of fossil fuels on campus.
Why not ask to fully decommission Abbott
and move to a carbon free energy source?
The answer to that lies in the vast problems
of fully transitioning to a carbon free economy.
There are still immense infrastructural
barriers that need to be taken into account
in order to be able to meet the heating,
cooling and electricity needs of the University.
Although a carbon free economy is the
end goal, it is not a realistic goal for the next
two years at this University.
This is why we are proposing that the
University not contribute any additional
money towards the combustion of coal on
campus and allow the existing coal systems
to be retired. It is time that the U of I begin to
take the lead on clean energy and not lag
behind the likes of University of Wisconsin-
Madison or Ball State, which have already
committed to retiring their coal systems in
favor of cleaner energy. It is embarrassing to
the University that as one of the nation’s top
research institutions, it continues to rely on
coal as a prominent source of energy. In order
for the University to be considered in the
same arena as the Stanfords and the Cornells,
it is time to take the steps that other schools
have already taken and retire dirty energy.
On March 3-4, 2010, the students at the
U of I voted to increase the campus green
fees by five dollars, adding to the student
funded money that goes towards sustainability
projects. This issue was put forth by
the students and made the University one
of the leaders in student sustainability fees.
The students have voted and now it is time
for action towards clean energy on the part
of university administrators.
Switching off of coal would send a
strong message to the state and to other
universities that climate change is a serious
problem and we need to start taking
action. Natural gas is not a permanent
solution, but it is a transition fuel while we
build the infrastructure for a zero-carbon
economy and national energy system.
Now is the time to tell the University
that we do not want any more coal on campus
or our community. In such a variable
political and economic climate it is time for
institutions such as the U of I to step up
and lead, and not lag behind others. This is
the type of action that Students for Environmental
Concerns is asking the university
to take. Stand up and lead a movement
towards clean energy and leave dirty energy
behind as a relic of past times.

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