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Clean Energy Panel hopes to inform, instill action in students

Thursday, February 11, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:49 a.m. CST, Thursday, February 11, 2010

COLUMBIA — MU is committed to becoming carbon neutral, said Steve Burdic, MU sustainability coordinator.

Burdic spoke at a panel discussion hosted by Coal Free Mizzou, an unofficial student organization sponsored by Sierra Club, about plans and goals the university has for moving towards reducing and eventually eliminating the use of burning coal for energy.

A group of about 25 people showed up to hear four panelists speak for 10 to 15 minutes each about ways to reduce MU’s carbon footprint.

“We wanted to inform people,” said Mallory Schillinger, a co-chair for the organization and moderator for the event. “We want people to know what the university is doing and can do.”

Schillinger said the way to get the university to change and reduce their coal usage is to educate the students, who will have more impact on convincing the university that this is a priority.

“What better way to set an example than seeing the leading educational institution in the Show-Me state lead that charge,” said panelist Jim Pierobon, a policy and market developer for Standard Solar.

The greatest intended change in MU’s carbon emissions will come from a biomass boiler, which is expected to be completed in 2012. The biomass boiler, which generates electricity from burning materials such as roots, switch grass and rubber tires, is expected to reduce the amount of coal the university burns by 25 percent.

Jan Weaver, director of MU’s environmental studies department, said that while thinning forests to use the wood for the biomass boiler will likely not have long-term sustainability, the power plant is working with the state forestry department to ensure that the wood is being harvested in a sustainable manner.

She said unchecked deforestation would take more nutrients from the soil than is healthy.

“It will take 80 tons of biomass per year to run the power plant,” Burdic said.

Certain “energy crops” such as switch grass, however, work best for burning and re-growing because they do a good job of sequestering carbon in the soil, Burdic said.

The panelists also discussed other ways MU can reduce its carbon emissions, such as increasing efficiency and conserving electricity. Henry Robertson, a lawyer for Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, advocated higher efficiency standards of buildings, something MU has taken care to ensure in each of its new and renovated buildings.

Pierobon, who was unable to attend personally, participated through the use of a webcam and Skype. He spoke about the potentials of universities like MU to use his company’s solar panels as an alternative means to generate energy.

If the university were to choose this option, Standard Solar would own the panels and allow the university to use them for free. The company would buy the energy produced by the panels.

Regardless of what decisions the university makes in the coming years, funding will be a major issue.

“We are going to do it as fast as is financially feasible,” Burdic said. “But the problem is that we are trying to look into a crystal ball of the next couple decades. We don’t know what technology will be discovered.”


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