Students Push Higher Education to Lead the Charge Against Climate Change

If state lawmakers in Pennsylvania give the go-ahead on certain funding requirements, Pennsylvania State University will soon be making a shift away from burning coal—the dirtiest fossil fuel and biggest contributor to climate change. For more than eighty years, Penn State’s West Campus Steam Plant has burned coal to provide the school with energy. However the university now plans to refurbish the plant so it burns natural gas, while moving forward with energy efficiency investments that hopefully will help the campus achieve carbon neutrality eventually.

By no longer burning coal at the West Campus Steam Plant, University of Pennsylvania will avoid having to install expensive pollution controls which aging coal plants are expected to need once new federal clean air rules go into effect. By converting the plant to burn cleaner fuel sources that make new pollution scrubbers unnecessary, the university will actually save money.

Yet campus administrators might not have had the gumption to move past coal were it not for a year-long push on the part Penn State students involved in the Sierra Student Coalition’s Campuses Beyond Coal campaign. Though significant in itself, Penn State’s move away from coal is just the latest victory in a national student effort to make college campuses leaders in fighting climate change. More and more schools are moving to decommission campus coal plants, putting institutions of higher education at the frontlines of the climate change fight.

Though some campuses are switching to natural gas with the understanding that students will keep pushing for 100% clean energy, others are poised to move straight from coal to truly carbon-neutral energy. North Dakota’s Minot State University recently announced it is taking steps to curb climate change by replacing a coal boiler on its campus with a geothermal heating system. Like Penn State, Minot hopes to use funding originally budgeted for upgrades on its coal plant to instead make the transition to cleaner energy. The priority right now is to replace the coal boiler, which at present heats only part of the Minot campus. As additional funding sources are found, the entire university heating system may be switched from its present mix of coal, oil, and natural gas over to geothermal energy.

In total about 60 college campuses in the US have their own coal boilers that provide heating or electricity. At many, students have already begun the push to replace coal with clean energy. But those pursuing their education where there is no on-campus coal plant can still be part of the action. Just last night over thirty students from five colleges in the greater Portland are in Oregon showed up at a state Department of Environmental Quality hearing, to urge that Oregon’s Boardman Coal Plant be closed by 2015. This plant supplies most Portland-area schools with power, and is an impediment to achieving campus goals for sustainability (much more about that coming soon in another post!).

While colleges and universities are supposed to be places of innovation, far too many continue to rely on outdated methods of energy generation that contribute heavily to climate change. Fortunately students are leading the charge to fix this, pressuring campus administrators or state agencies and public officials to make the switch to clean energy. Do you have other stories from schools and student groups working to move beyond coal? Feel free to share you own experiences below.

Article by Nick Engelfried, appearing courtesy Justmeans.

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One comment on “Students Push Higher Education to Lead the Charge Against Climate Change

check out our blog at to see updates about student activism to move campuses beyond coal and onto cleaner alternatives. We are the Sierra Student Coalition, the national student and youth chapter of the Sierra Club, an we support student environmentalists across the US. Thanks for the article!

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