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Students Pressure University of North Carolina to Abandon Coal

Student environmental activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill won a commitment from administrators to stop using coal for campus heat and power within a decade.

The university will begin testing alternative fuels such as biomass to help switch away from coal by May 1, 2020, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced today. The campus generator is among the most efficient in the country and could run for an additional 30 years to 40 years, Thorp said.

The North Carolina school is among 60 universities with coal-fired power plants targeted by the San Francisco-based Sierra Club, an environmental group that is campaigning to close existing plants and block new construction. Burning coal is linked to about half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions that are blamed for global warming.

“You could almost do anything and it would be better than burning coal,” said Stewart Boss, the 19-year-old coordinator of the Coal-Free UNC campaign who joined the effort last year. “The university is actually pretty progressive. They realized very early on they don’t like burning coal very much either.”

U.S. schools burning coal for heat and power include the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and Pennsylvania State University in State College, said Bruce Nilles, who oversees the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

The North Carolina campus, about 271 miles (436 kilometers) southwest of Washington, is paying down bonds that financed the plant so retrofitting to burn a different fuel wasn’t “fiscally feasible,” Thorp said. Instead, UNC will begin testing dried wood pellets and biochar, wood chips roasted in a furnace, in the existing unit, Thorp said.

2015 Target

The university is aiming to replace 20 percent of its coal with biomass by 2015. UNC will avoid using coal mined at sites in Appalachia where companies level mountaintops to recover the fuel.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in April tightened water-pollution restrictions for mountaintop-removal coal mining in the Appalachia region, affecting companies including Arch Coal Inc. and Patriot Coal Corp. The guidelines aim to protect 95 percent of aquatic life and streams in the eastern U.S., the EPA said.

The Chapel Hill campus has a very efficient co-generation plant that burns coal, Thorp said yesterday in an interview.

“It’s pretty much a model of how to do things,” he said. “Nonetheless, there are coal cars pulling up on rail up to the plant and that’s not particularly good symbolism for a university that teaches people about climate change and the frontiers of energy research.”

Student Actions

Boss, a freshman student from Charlotte, North Carolina, who said he plans to become an environmental advocate, joined the Sierra Club’s campaign in September because “it seemed like a cool way to get involved.” Boss and students requested a meeting with Thorp and submitted petitions from faculty and community leaders urging a shutdown of the coal plant.

In February, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, visited UNC and held a press conference in front of the coal plant, Boss said. Hansen, who warned in 1981 that global warming emissions were heating the planet faster than expected, has argued against building any new plants.

“I got to speak at the press conference with him,” Boss said. “That was pretty surreal.”

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