Welcome to our new web site!

To give our readers a chance to experience all that our new website has to offer, we have made all content freely avaiable, through October 1, 2018.

During this time, print and digital subscribers will not need to log in to view our stories or e-editions.

The green and the black

Coal-fired MSU moves toward energy transition


Eric Price asked for a date, but he really wanted a commitment.

On Valentine’s Day, Price and other students from Michigan State University stood in the International Center at the heart of campus, calling for MSU’s administration to “make a date with clean energy.”

Holding hand-made valentines with slogans like “clean energy = true love,” a series of student speakers pushed MSU’s “Be Spartan Green” slogan up against the reality of its T.B. Simon Power Plant, the largest on-campus coal-burning power plant in the nation and one of the largest 500 coal plants in the nation.

On the table behind Price sat a petition urging the administration to commit to a date for switching from coal to renewable energy.

“There is overwhelming support for clean energy among students,” Price said.

The activists said they’ve gathered 4,000 signatures in a year, and will seek 2,000 more by semester’s end. They cited three other Big Ten universities that have committed to kicking coal: Penn State, Wisconsin and Indiana State.

The students stood behind the petition table like prospective brides.

“We’re looking for a date to be set,” MSU student representative Alyx Ross said.

But the object of the students’ attentions is being coy.

“Some universities will make a promise, ‘we’re going to do this by this date,’ with no plan,” Jennifer Battle, assistant director for campus sustainability at MSU, said. “We work backwards at MSU. We want to put together a plan and see what makes the most sense for us.”

On Friday, a blue-ribbon steering committee of faculty, administration and at least one student will meet for the first time to begin mapping out MSU’s energy future. The planning will continue through late fall and early winter, when the steering committee will submit a transition plan to the Board of Trustees.

If adopted, the plan will govern future energy decisions for the university, much the way that the 2020 Campus Master Plan has guided development of the campus.

The students timed the Valentine’s Day event to pressure the university as the planning begins.

The courting metaphor was cute, but there’s a shotgun under the valentine. At the rally, Ross announced that MSU’s student assembly passed a resolution in late January urging the administration to switch from coal to renewable energy.

“MSU is preparing students for a 21st-century work force using 19th-century energy technology,” Ross asserted.

Battle said MSU has a “vision” of moving to alternative fuel.

“They’re not happy that there’s not a date set, but we’re on the same page,” Battle said.

“There are a variety of ways to get to our vision,” Battle said. “We are not ruling out any fuel source.”

High energy

On the website for MSU’s sustainability office, proudly featured alongside other success stories about hoop gardens and recycling, is “a toxic fish tale,” about MSU’s research into mercury poisoning of yellow perch in the Great Lakes.

The story is meant to highlight “university events and initiatives that make the MSU campus and the world a greener place for all.”

“Our actions are powered by more than a century and a half commitment to empowering ordinary people to do extraordinary things,” reads the text on the web page. “The impact? Clean and affordable energy.”

But there’s another power behind all that powering and empowering.

The fish story is a quiet reminder of the 61-megawatt gorilla that provides steam heat and electricity for MSU’s 500 buildings and 45,000 students.

With the exception of a geothermal heating system at the Life Sciences building, a solar array at the MSU Surplus Store and Recycling Center, and a small percentage of natural gas and biomass burned at the power plant, MSU green runs on bituminous black — 222,819 tons of it in 2009, or an average of about 600 tons a day, according to MSU data.

Coal combustion is also the biggest source of the environmental mercury that has made Great Lakes perch a once-a-month dose of poison for pregnant women and children, according to guidelines set by Michigan’s Department of Public Health.

By now, the case against coal is mounded too high to do anything here but pick up a few of the most recent crumbs.

A 2008 study by Abt Associates, a development consulting firm that works with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Center for Disease Control, linked over 13,000 deaths each year to fine particle pollution from U.S. power plants.

The American Lung Association found that in 2010, coal-powered electricity alone caused over 13,000 premature deaths, 10,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 heart attacks a year in the United States.

Coal combustion is also a major source of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

A new study, to be released in March 2011 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, estimates the hidden “economic, environmental and health” cost of coal over its life cycle from extraction to transportation to processing to combustion at “a third to over half a trillion dollars annually.”

The argument is heard at campuses across the country: A research university full of pulsating brains ought to be able to find a way to stop burning the dirtiest fuel on the planet.

“Universities have always been the models that stoked our country’s progress,” MSU’s Price said at the Valentine’s Day rally.

But a look at the most recent projections for MSU energy use shows that those brains are going to need more, not less, energy, to keep on pulsating.

MSU is no longer a place for professors to conjugate Latin at a chalkboard and run the occasional filmstrip. Staying in the top tier of research universities carries a big energy price tag.

A study commissioned by MSU last year projected that despite the university’s efforts to conserve energy and retrofit old buildings to be more energy efficient, energy demand is likely to spike upward in the coming years.

“There is more heavy-duty research happening on campus,” Battle said. “It demands a lot of energy.”

The report, by high-powered consulting firm Black and Veatch, says that new buildings, such as those providing research and laboratory functions, have “higher energy use densities by their nature” than do the simpler classroom and lecture buildings.

The report found that campus building construction over the years has been “quite aggressive,” adding on the order of 2 million square feet every 10 years.

What is more, energy usage has increased by a greater percentage than the number of buildings. That means newer buildings are using more energy than older buildings on campus.

High-energy research buildings such as the cyclotron, the chemistry and biochemistry monoliths, and new additions to the Plant and Soil Science (with its demonstration “green roof”) and Life Science buildings, suck a lot more energy than the creaking classrooms of yore.

On campus as a whole, the Black and Veatch study found a 12.29 percent increase in electricity delivered at MSU, measured in MW hours per year, from 2004 to 2009.

Boilers and Boilermakers

The tug of war between growth and sustainability gives the MSU energy transition the ultimate college research assignment.

Battle declined to name the 23 people invited to the committee until their answers come back and the membership is finalized.

Joe Hagerty, an MSU student majoring in environmental economics and policy, has been invited and will accept the invitation. Hagerty said he will represent the student body and Beyond Coal on the steering committee.

Hagerty said Beyond Coal has successfully pushed for 12 commitments to move to clean energy on campuses around the country, including three Big Ten schools: Penn State, Wisconsin and Illinois.

But these commitments come in various forms, sometimes with elaborate hedging. In May 2010, the University of Illinois pledged to stop using coal within seven years — apparently.

A closer look at the university’s Climate Action Plan, released last year, revealed that the university will “specifically identify the earliest possible date for the elimination of coal steam production” and “evaluate the potential for eliminating all coal use by 2017.”

On January 21, the Board of Trustees of Pennsylvania State University approved a plan to spend $25 million to $35 million to convert the campus’s aging coal plant to natural gas.

It’s a remarkable development in a strong coal state, but the Penn State plant was built in 1929, and only burns about 7 percent of the electricity on campus. (The university buys the rest from Allegheny Energy, which burns coal.)

At the Valentine’s Day MSU event, activists exulted over a decision made a few days earlier at Purdue University. The Boilermakers announced they would scrap plans to build a new coal-fired boiler on campus to replace aging units from the 1950s.

But MSU’s boilers aren’t in danger of conking out soon. The Simon plant has six units: two built in 1965, one in 1973, one in 1993, and one in 2006. The Black and Veatch report pronounced them in good shape, with “firm capacity to serve the campus thermal and electrical energy needs for the foreseeable future.”

Sierra Club Mackinac Chapter director Anne Woiwode responded that the Simon plant has “serious issues.” In 2008, the federal EPA found the plant in violation of federal limits on sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. The university was fined $27,000 and ordered to use 5 percent biomass in one of the power plant’s 6 units.

At a public hearing on Feb. 25, 2010, an EPA consent order setting the terms for the plant’s continued operation was opened to public comment. It was an early rumble in this year’s discussion over MSU’s energy future. “We had concerns about the re-permitting last year,” Woiwode said. “We felt there were good reasons for them to begin to look into phasing out the plant at that point.”

Plant manager Robert Ellerhorst said “some plant modification” might be needed to comply with new EPA rules for industrial boilers, due out this week. Otherwise, Ellerhorst said, the plant can do its job until demand goes up “sometime between 2023 and 2030,” when “we will need to add capacity.”

The MSU units can be converted to natural gas. “We have full natural gas firing capability,” Ellerhorst said. Hagerty said a fuel switch to natural gas would be an acceptable intermediate goal. However, the Black and Veatch report warned that the switch “would significantly increase the cost of purchased fuel.”

In January, the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, with about 42,000 students, announced it would convert its coal-powered Charter Street Heating and Cooling Steam Plant to run on biomass. The conversion is estimated to cost $250 million, to be funded by the state and by student fees. The move is controversial, but the project’s supporters say it will jumpstart the local biomass market, which is local by nature, and keep energy dollars in the state.

Wisconsin’s sharp fuel shift is a rarity on the nation’s campuses, but there are other bold strokes. In February of 2009, Ball State University’s Board of Trustees said they would phase out coal over the next five to 10 years and replace it with the largest geothermal energy project in the nation. The project will be funded primarily by money that was earmarked for upgrades of the existing power plant. The rest of the cost will be recouped by energy cost savings, planners said. But Ball State only has about 40 buildings on 660 acres, compared to MSU’s 500, on a sprawling 5,200-acre campus.

Promise or plan?

While each university deals with energy transition — or not — in its own way, a national organization is putting the effort under one umbrella. As of Oct. 6, 2010, 677 colleges and universities signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, including Western Michigan University, Lansing Community College and 11 smaller Michigan schools. Neither MSU nor the University of Michigan have signed. The non-binding, non-regulatory agreement commits signatories to “achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible.”

Tony Cortese, the national guru of campus sustainability who monitors the program, said about half the universities and colleges that have signed don’t have a plan yet. “They’re basically saying, ‘We don’t know how to become climate neutral, but we need to do this because it needs to be done for society,” Cortese told Indiana Public Radio in a November 2009 story on the Ball State geothermal project. “And if we don’t do it who in society is going to?’”

MSU’s Battle said there is “a difference in philosophy” between the activists and the university. “A promise is empty without a plan,” she said. “We want to do better. But if I say, ‘We’re going to do it by 2015,’ but I have no idea how that can happen, it almost sets us up to fail,” she said.

MSU Trustee Dianne Byrum took the same view. She and her fellow trustees will have the last say over the steering committee’s final plan a year or so from now.“You can’t have a truly open dialogue if you start out saying, ‘This is what the outcome is going to be,’” Byrum said. “A lot of things figure into the equation. We have a constrained budget. If people didn’t realize that, they clearly did after the governor’s budget presentation last week.”

Battle said the steering committee will meet in private, because “they have work to do,” but the minutes of each meeting will be posted online. “Even though we can’t necessarily accommodate a hundred people in a room every two weeks when we meet, I want people to see exactly what happened,” Battle said.

As the transition planning continues, Battle said MSU will conduct a series of “facilitated discussions” on and off campus. An on-line tool will enable interested parties to build their own MSU energy portfolio, using preset inputs, juggling priorities such as emissions, cost and reliability. Battle said the portfolio builder will “convey the complexity and interrelationships involved in these decisions.”

“What might the impact on tuition be?” Battle said. “It helps people understand what happens when you make one decision, it might affect other things.”

Dances with volts

Michael Nelson, a professor of environmental ethics at MSU, said the energy transition will force the university to “confront questions about purpose and mission that might be uncomfortable.”

Nelson straddles two departments, wildlife and philosophy.

Last year, he co-edited “Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril,” with heavyweight contributors such as Desmond Tutu and Barack Obama and scientists like himself, in the thick of research.

Nelson was reached in isolated Isle Royale, where he’s in the middle of a decades-long study on the relationship between wolves and moose.

He praised the MSU administration for getting the transition process underway and urged the university to “quickly and smartly” move away from coal.

He said it’s a question of the “genuine commitments of institutions of higher learning, and especially land grant universities.”

But Nelson is not sanguine about the juggernaut of research-funded growth overtaking MSU.

“If the main or sole focus of the university is the generation of revenue, then we might be foolish to expect the university — MSU and others — to offer ethical leadership or guide society, or any of those qualities we used to expect from a university,” Nelson said.

The steering committee and the university at large, Nelson said, has “wonderful opportunity to reorient, offer leadership, and to honor an obligation to the future.”

“But many people wonder if they should continue to have faith in the ability or willingness of the modern university to provide such critical guidance,” he cautioned.

‘On Coal River’

Film sponsored by MSU. Beyond Coal and Greenpeace. 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 1. 228 Erikson Hall, MSU. For information on MSU’s energy transition, go to www.energytransition.msu.edu


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Connect with us