GUEST COMMENTARY: MU leading the way in alternative energy

Monday, January 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 10:56 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The nation meets 44 percent of its energy needs by burning coal. The University of Missouri and the state of Missouri receive approximately 80 percent of their energy from this fossil fuel. Society has become increasingly aware of the deleterious effects of burning coal on human health and the natural environment. Recognizing these effects, MU has taken extraordinary steps for short-run, technical adjustments to reduce harmful effects and is developing and implementing longer-run modifications of its power plant to reduce and eliminate the need to burn coal to supply our energy needs. The university also is devoting resources to stimulate exploration of alternative energy sources to move society toward a more sustainable energy future.

I want to provide perspective on MU’s efforts to reduce dependence on coal as an energy source. The remarkable scope of energy use at MU makes this challenge formidable and requires ongoing assessment of cost and technological change. The MU power plant is responsible for providing utility service to more than 14 million square feet of facilities across more than 1,300 acres of land on the university’s main campus, which includes hospitals, a research reactor, numerous research facilities, academic buildings, residential halls, dining facilities and the athletic complex. MU administrators search continually for the most efficient, environmentally friendly ways to keep our campus running.

Given this high-energy demand, how are we responding to the need to transition away from coal? I will begin with MU’s most recent step forward and then recount key action steps that are already under way and receiving wide recognition.    

MU is considered a national leader in energy management. I signed The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment on Jan. 15, 2009, committing MU to submit a greenhouse gas inventory of our campus by Jan. 15, 2010. Currently, we are on target to meet that deadline.

As part of the pact, MU also must develop a climate action implementation plan, which is due Jan. 15, 2011. To ensure that we meet the deadline for this critical component, a sustainability coordinator was hired to spearhead, coordinate and provide oversight for the plan’s timely development. The plan must contain the following elements:

  1. Set a target date for climate neutrality, a time when greenhouse gas emissions are balanced with renewable energy production.
  2. Establish interim targets for goals and actions.
  3. Identify actions to make climate neutrality and sustainability part of the campus curriculum and other educational experiences for all students.
  4. Develop strategies to expand research and other efforts to achieve climate neutrality.
  5. Ensure that mechanisms for tracking progress on goals and actions are in place.

The entire MU community recognizes our responsibility to be good stewards of our environment, and we take that responsibility seriously as our record will show.

Consider for a moment the significance of reduced energy usage on campus. While our education and general use space has grown by 30 percent since 1990 with many new energy-intensive research facilities, our energy use has actually been reduced by 10 percent per square foot. We also have experienced a 12 percent decrease of greenhouse gas emissions based on square footage. This has only been possible through the work of our experts in campus facilities – energy management.

Since 1995, MU has won 14 international, national and state awards for energy management techniques. The most recent award was the 2008 Missouri Waste Control Coalition’s Outstanding Achievement Award based on our use of old tires to replace a portion of our coal as a fuel source. Rather than discard these used tires in landfills, they are shredded and burned. As a fuel source, they burn cleaner than coal, reducing emissions.

We are proud of the leadership role of our students, faculty and staff. Earlier this year, our student group, Sustain Mizzou, submitted a grant application to become part of a project that investigated challenges universities face to incorporate sustainability practices in their operation and curriculum. As a result, we were visited by officials from the Rocky Mountain Institute. Located in Snowmass, Colo., the institute is dedicated to the responsible use of natural resources while encouraging sustainable practices. Following their visit to our power plant, institute officials commented that MU was a “rock star” among its peers.

In October, the Sustainable Endowments Institute gave MU an overall grade of “B-,” but MU received an “A” in the area of “Climate Change and Energy,” the highest (along with the University of Colorado) of all Big 12 universities.

While we continue to use coal at our plant, we have explored and been successful with using alternative fuels, including corncobs, waste wood and switch grass. Currently, we are preparing to replace a coal-fired boiler with a special boiler that will have the ability to burn 100 percent biomass. MU’s power plant uses combined heat and power technology to produce steam and electricity for the campus. The efficiency of this process is nearly twice that of a conventional power plant. By taking these actions, we are continuing our steps toward eliminating coal usage on our campus. This will not happen overnight, but we realize that by taking these actions, we are setting the stage for minimal coal use in the future.

Even as we cope with the problems associated with burning coal, economic realities and new technologies will determine the exact timetable for eliminating coal use. There is no doubt that we will succeed. Our plans are based on specific investments, a deep commitment to a cleaner and safer environment, knowledge of the damaging effects of coal, and the problems of greenhouse gas and other emissions that harm human and plant life.

As we continue our concerted efforts to achieve our energy and environmental goals, I ask you to join the MU community in open and informed discussions of this complex issue of national and international importance.

Brady Deaton is the MU chancellor.

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