GUEST COMMENTARY: Time for MU to kick the coal habit

Wednesday, December 9, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The other day I saw two political pundits on TV debating the reality of climate change and I was astonished. Glaciers are melting, a hurricane decimated New Orleans and most scientists concur that global temperatures continue to rise. While controversy and debate might sell well with the media, human-caused climate change has been widely recognized as the reality. Clearly, our world's climate is on a slippery slope to chaos.

Science has shown that the cause of these effects comes down to greenhouse gases, mainly carbon emissions. In the U.S., coal contributes nearly 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions.

Simply put, coal equals carbon. With every light switch flipped, TV show watched, and adjustment of the thermostat, we are feeding the coal habit. We are feeding it with 183,000 tons of dirty coal a year here at MU, according to an interview I had with Energy Management in 2008. To put that in perspective, if you piled all that coal onto Faurot Field, that pile would be more than 150 feet high.

Many people will claim it's too expensive to move to renewable sources of energy. This has been shown to be false on a long-term scale or when including the externalities of coal. If you include the cost of miners' lives, destruction of environments and communities destroyed by mining, chemicals put into the air when coal is burned, and the way carbon emissions are throwing our climate into an erratic mess, it quickly becomes clear that using clean and renewable energy is by far the most economical option we have.  It is also the only option that will improve our families’ health, protect our climate and create permanent, sustainable job growth in our stagnant economy.

MU has made some noteworthy sustainability efforts of course, with some biomass fuels, natural gas and a new biomass boiler to be installed by 2012. Yet more than 80 percent of all the campus energy supply still comes from coal burned at the MU Power Plant, with even more being burned by our outside energy supplier.

The real concern with our energy consumption is that there is no plan or vision to ever stop burning coal. Chancellor Deaton said in a November Coal Free Mizzou meeting that he agrees with implementing clean sources of energy, but he won't take the next step of commissioning a plan to phase out coal. Change won’t come instantly, but if we don’t take action now, the most destructive effects of coal will be inescapable.

Other schools are already moving beyond coal. The University of Wisconsin has begun the transition to move completely off coal to a combination of natural gas and biomass by 2012. Ball State University is moving completely to geothermal power. These solutions will massively cut carbon emissions at both schools, provide a greater mix of locally sourced biomass and geothermal energy, create new construction and clean energy jobs, and drastically cut air and water pollution from coal use.

Here at MU, we can help launch the clean energy revolution rather than hanging on to our dirty coal habits. Moving beyond coal at MU is a crucial step to show leadership for getting others to kick the habit, too. To do so, we need a strong commitment by Chancellor Deaton and the MU administration to move beyond coal by increasing investments in solar, geothermal, biomass, energy efficiency and conservation. These solutions exist today and could be employed immediately to reduce our dependence on coal in the short term and eliminate its use entirely as quickly as possible.  

Let’s take the lead in moving beyond coal, starting right here at Mizzou.

Paul Rolfe is the faculty coalitions coordinator for the student group Coal Free Mizzou.


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