Student Activists Take the Lead Down the Path Away From Coal


Photo credit: Sierra Club

One big reason for optimism that America will rise to the occasion and make the transition away from coal is the movement taking place on college campuses around the country. Student activists are organizing, rallying, working with local communities, and putting pressure on university administrators to phase out coal power from their energy portfolios. Above, student activists rally at Penn State University.

Helping lead the way is the Sierra Student Coalition (SSC), which is targeting more than 40 campus coal plants for retirement. At Ohio University, students worked with the SSC to form OU Beyond Coal, which collected more than 2,000 petition signatures from students and local residents urging administrators and trustees to get the school off coal. This spring, OU decided to retire its 45-year-old coal-fired power plant by 2016, and ruled out coal as a replacement fuel.At the Missouri University of Science & Technology, student activists pressured the administration to decommission the school's aging coal- and wood-fired boiler. As a result, the university announced plans to install a geothermal heating system that will cut carbon dioxide emissions by 25,000 tons annually and save nearly $1.5 million a year.

"Students are establishing their own campaigns and movements," says Nachy Kanfer, an organizer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign. "Some of the most strategic and exciting campaigns right now are being planned and executed by young people, not by people in offices wearing suits, and that's the future of our movement."

A particularly heartening campus success story was the cancellation of a new coal-fired boiler at Purdue University in Indiana--a victory made all the sweeter by the fact that the official nickname for Purdue's athletic teams is the Boilermakers.

Below, student activists and local residents rally against the proposed coal boiler.


Photo credit: Sierra Club

When the SSC began working with student organizers at Purdue early last year, the board of trustees had already approved plans for the $28 million coal boiler. The Sierra Club issued a legal challenge to the boiler's clean air permit, and SSC joined forces with the Boiler Green Initiative, an on-campus student group, to fight the boiler on a grassroots level. The SSC's first joint action with Purdue student activists was to convene a public hearing in the city of West Lafayette.

From that point on, students never let up pressure on the trustees. "People at Purdue and in West Lafayette view the university as an innovator in science and green technology," says SSC organizer Alexis Boxer, "so we emphasized the fact that Purdue was the only school in the country making investments in new coal infrastructure."

Students attended every board meeting and organized actions like a flash mob "freeze" outside the administration building to drive home the point that Purdue was frozen in 19th-century energy technology. Participants wore Beyond Coal t-shirts, handed out literature, and asked people to sign a petition against the new coal boiler. The event garnered media attention in West Lafayette and beyond.

Late last year, each trustee received a letter signed by students, alumni, and locals, urging cancellation of the boiler. Meanwhile, the SSC emailed all Indiana Sierra Club members, asking them to sign an online petition. Every time someone signed, the trustees got an email update, along with personal messages. "One trustee wrote to say how much he appreciated it and was glad it was happening," says Boxer.

Just before the holidays, a giant stocking stuffed with charcoal and information about clean energy was delivered to the trustees' offices. This spring, they voted to nix the coal boiler, cancel funding, and withdraw their permit, saying the economics weren't viable and it wasn't feasible to invest $60 million in the project when the future of coal was so uncertain.

"Now we're waiting for an energy master plan the trustees have commissioned," Boxer says. "They haven't outright said they'll pursue clean energy, but they're talking about wind--there's a 60-turbine wind farm being built near campus for research purposes, and we want them to use the turbines to provide power for the campus."

It's a big deal when university trustees, comprised mainly of businesspeople, notice that the tide of public opinion has turned and it's no longer in favor of coal. It set a precedent in the Midwest that coal is not the energy of the future.

We are all frustrated at the lack of progress in Washington, but what's happening on college campuses today shows that our children aren't going to wait for us--they're going to create the change themselves.

Find out more about what colleges and universities from coast to coast are doing to help save the planet in the Sept/Oct "Cool Schools" issue of Sierra magazine.
Read more about student activism:
6 Need-to-Know Lessons from Top Young Environmentalists
Bioneers: Kids Rise Up Against Climate Change
10 College Students Making Green Headlines

Tags: Coal | Pollution