COLUMBIA — Missouri depends on coal. In fact, the state gets 85.6 percent of its electricity from coal, according to a report from Missouri's Energy Task Force.
There's just one problem, some environmental groups say — coal is one of the biggest contributors to global climate change.
MU, at least from the perspective of the Sierra Club and other environmentalists, is contributing too much to the problem. The MU power plant serves more than 35,000 students, faculty and staff by burning coal.
That conviction brought 15 MU students and a campaign organizer to Speakers Circle on Wednesday to make a statement in protest of MU's coal-fired power plant.
"We have an opportunity to take a lead in the heartland and in the Show-Me state and make a switch away from coal entirely," Mallory Schillinger, an MU senior, said as she stood in front of an arc of students who had coal smeared beneath their eyes. They held signs saying, "No more coal!" and "I (heart) renewable energy."
The event, one of about 60 held Wednesday on campuses powered by coal, is part of a campaign by the Sierra Club to eliminate coal and advocate for the use of cleaner energy.
The Energy Information Administration reports that coal produces 36 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and creates half of the electricity generated in the nation.
"This is not only devastating for our mountains, our acres of land, the streams, and devastating our ecosystem, but it is creating huge public health hazards," Schillinger said.
According to the EPA, prolonged exposure to burning coal has been linked to an increased susceptibility to pneumonia, bronchitis and other pulmonary disorders. Additionally, it's believed to cause birth defects.
After the demonstration, Green Corps coordinator Ryan Doyle delivered a report to MU Sustainability Coordinator Steve Burdic on the dangers of coal on campus, and the two sat down and talked about what the university is doing to reduce emissions.
"We have made a lot of decisions based on cost-effectiveness and frugality," Burdic said after the meeting. "Now we're looking more at the environmental impact, and we're getting away from coal as we can afford to do that."
Burdic said the university has started several initiatives to wean itself off coal, reduce its carbon footprint and become more energy-efficient.
"We've been working on energy conservation here for 30 years," Burdic said. "The building space has grown 30 percent, and our energy use has been reduced by 10 percent, and our greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 11 percent just through energy conservation."
Another step MU has taken toward cleaner energy is burning more biomass fuel, such as wood chips.
"Biomass has a much smaller carbon dioxide footprint than coal does," he said. "We've been using 5 to 10 percent of that biomass everyday to replace coal."
The university's new $60 million to $70 million biomass boiler, set to be running by 2012, will burn only biomass. Burdic said the boiler would replace about 25 percent of the coal.
"The biomass boiler is going to cost more to run than a coal-fired boiler, but we're willing to do things to be doing the right thing," he said. "We just can't break the bank to do it."
Burdic also said the coal-fired plant at MU is one of the most efficient in the U.S. because the waste steam is used for heating and cooling.
Consequently, Burdic said, MU's utility bills are only about half of what one would pay with a typical electric utility boiler.
"The existing cost of the boilers that we've got there is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and so we can't just walk away from that tomorrow," he added. "We're doing a lot of really great things, but we've got a long ways to go."