A renewable debate
Making the switch from coal to more renewable sources of energy on campus is being debated by students and campus and state officials
The T.B. Simon Power Plant sits in an area of campus most students never see during their time at MSU.
Situated on Service Road between Harrison Avenue and Farm Lane, this geographically isolated, 100 megawatt power plant — which burns 250,000 tons of coal per year — provides the university with all its heating and electricity needs.
But it doesn’t take perfect vision to see the smoke emanating from this distant structure, and the coal-burning facility has caught the attention and ire of campus groups and students.
With coal being the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitting energy source, many wonder why MSU — a university that touts it’s “been green from the beginning” in its TV commercials — uses an energy source with detrimental environmental and health effects, and that hits states for an average of $156 million annually, according to the American Lung Association.
But a wholesale change to renewable energy definitely would hit the university’s checkbooks.
Vice President of Finance and Operations Fred Poston said clean energy technology is not advanced or efficient enough to justify making a multimillion-dollar switch, arguing it is too risky for the university.
Still, green energy advocates said MSU officials aren’t looking at the numbers the right way.
It costs $40 million annually to purchase coal and operate the power plant, but it brings many negative externalities.
“If they actually did consider health costs and climate change costs in the long run that would figure into the end cost of what coal does for us then we will be paying a lot more than if we went with what one of these renewable energy presents,” said Max Johnson, an international relations sophomore and MSU Greenpeace campus coordinator.
The almighty dollar
The power plant could run on more natural gas today.
The question is whether students can stomach a 10 percent tuition hike, as Poston estimates that’s the only way to accommodate such a change.
“I’d love to be able to switch to gas, no problem, but we literally don’t have the money to do that,” he said.
“There’s nothing left to cut, as you look around this place.”
In truth, natural gas would be just a minor victory for green energy advocates.
Although it produces the least amount of CO2 compared to the power plant’s coal and biomass energy sources, it still is a polluter.
University officials said many people overlook that the coal plant is a cogeneration facility, which means it takes some of the excess steam from burning coal and converts it into a heating source, making it 60 percent efficient compared to the standard 30 percent.
Poston said the university soon will have to make a $100 million upgrade to the 45-year-old power plant — it purchased the plant’s fourth boiler for $61 million in 1990 and made $44 million in improvements to boost capacity after the grid crashed in 2003 — and Poston doesn’t envision technology being reliable enough to warrant investing in renewable sources.
Robert Richardson, assistant professor of agriculture and natural resources, said MSU needs to evaluate the opportunity cost of not switching to renewable energy.
Considering the Obama administration set aside more than $60 billion in renewable energy funding, coal regulation as well as the pricey capital upgrades and the environmental and health factors that come with coal, Richardson said it makes more sense to go with renewable energy.
“From an economics point of view, the investment they’ve already made in coal is a sunk cost — it’s in the past, and they can’t do anything about it,” he said.
“Clean energy over the long term is likely to result in economic benefits.”
Ellerhorst said until green energy advocates can figure out a way to heat campus, there is no feasible way to cost-effectively wean MSU off coal.
“The common caveat is do it now with solar and wind, but show me the solutions to do it,” he said.
“You aren’t going to tear all our buildings down and put boilers in there.”
But some campuses already have pledged to replace coal with natural gas, which could be used for heating.
Cornell University, for one, announced in January it would switch entirely to natural gas, reducing its carbon footprint by 30 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions from 319,000 metric tons to zero by 2050.
Cornell supplements coal with a small amount of natural gas, wood and switchgrass, but usually only when prices are competitive, according to a statement from the university.
Johnson said if money is running the show at the Administration Building, the university will be in a tough spot when coal is no longer a viable energy source.
“It’s a great contradiction that, as a leading research institution in the world, we’re still lagging far behind on actual progress to becoming a truly green campus,” he said.
“We’ve been burning coal for more than 2,000 years — that’s like saying the wheel is technology.”
Although the university said it cannot run solely on renewable energy, it has attempted to phase in small-scale projects across campus.
The College of Nursing addition to the Life Sciences Building will be heated by a $17.5 million geothermal energy generator, the MSU Surplus Store added solar panels in August 2009 and there are possibilities for green roofing projects across campus.
Brandon Knight, an MSU alumnus and Midwest green economy campaign manager with Global Exchange, said such measures show the university is headed in the right direction, but there still are major steps that must be taken.
“I think that the only issue is that there can’t be ignorance about there being a coal plant on campus,” he said.
“A clean energy economy doesn’t include coal — so a clean energy campus does not include a coal plant.”
Having a plan
Most of MSU’s energy reform has been through conservation.
Through the “Be Spartan Green” initiative, MSU pledged to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent and landfill waste 30 percent by 2015.
Although MSU is on target to meet its 30 percent waste reduction, MSU Beyond Coal, a campus group promoting renewable energy use, said the university’s greenhouse gas emissions experienced a net reduction of 1 percent because campus square footage increased by 2.5 percent between 2005 and 2008.
With hundreds of acres of farmland, MSU officials have not ruled out incorporating wind and solar energy into a comprehensive energy mix.
It could not rely on those energy sources alone, though, as the university’s base load requires a steady input that Mid-Michigan’s pedestrian winds and spotty sunlight could not provide, said Lynda Boomer, energy and environmental engineer for the Physical Plant.
And, in the end, neither of these sources provide heat.
“(Coal is) what we have, and we don’t have the money to change to something else in the short order; that’s the long and short of it,” Poston said.
“What we’re doing is legal. … We just don’t have a lot of alternatives today.”
Johnson said the university needs a more comprehensive plan to reduce its coal dependency to prove it is a forward-thinking institution.
“It shows we don’t have the vision to move into the 21st century as a university, which is almost a contradiction because that’s entirely what a university is geared for — preparing this generation for the future,” he said.
MSU leading the future
Renewable energy advocates find it hypocritical that MSU, a university that prides itself on green research and initiatives, has not embraced cleaner energy than the coal plant.
Many people said MSU must take the initiative for Michigan to thrive.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘If Michigan State can’t do this, how can we expect people to do this across the country?’” said Lee Sprague, Michigan Sierra Club clean energy campaign manager.
Bob McCann, spokesman for the DNRE, said having a green campus will make MSU a more attractive destination for college and will help Mid-Michigan retain graduates, as he said Michigan has real potential to transform its automobile manufacturing base into a green energy one.
Knight sees the next 10 years as the “most significant decade of our generation.”
What role MSU plays in that remains undecided, but he said Michigan will be progressive with or without the university’s help.
“When we look back at this when we’re old and gray, I want to look at it as this was the decade we created the green economy, and it was Michigan that led the nation,” Knight said.
“We were the first to fall down, but that also means we can be the first to get up.”