(This article appeared in College Green, an online magazine at Ohio University.)
According to the letter, OU President Roderick McDavis believes coal is not viable at the heating plant in the long term, and will consider it only on a limited basis because of unknown future regulations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The letter was written by OU Vice President of Finance and Administration Stephen Golding.
This decision comes about a month after a meeting between the OU administrators, the Sierra Club, OU Beyond Coal and the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the meeting, OU officials said the university will replace the aging Lausche Heating Plant by 2016.
The decision to move away from coal stemmed from that meeting, which came about as a result of OU students asking the Sierra Club to pursue the issue of coal use at OU. The environmental groups asked Golding to discuss the issue of coal with McDavis, said Nachy Kanfer, Midwest states representative for the Sierra Club.
“I think OU has been very close to this for a long time,” Kanfer said. “It’s thanks to concerted, sustained student pressure that this is now something public to be celebrated.”
OU, however, has not completely closed the option of using coal.
While OU will not actively search for a coal solution, Golding’s letter stated that coal could be used in a new heating plant if research and technology make “coal (along with other energy sources)… both an environmentally sustainable and a cost-effective option at a future date.”
The current role of the Sierra Club, Kanfer said, is to further engage and pressure OU to use renewable energy in the future. Kanfer said he suggested several firms that the Sierra Club has worked with in the past.
The firms he listed included Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., a Massachusetts-based research and consulting firm specializing in environmental topics, and the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute, which aims to promote cleaner renewable energy.
The university has invited students to sit on panels that will be involved in the new energy discussion, said OU Beyond Coal lead organizer Badger Johnson.
For environmental groups, the decision is a big step.
“It’s a very huge validation of what OU students have been demanding for years,” Kanfer said.
After working on that goal for a year and a half, Johnson said he’s to have accomplished this mission before graduating this spring.
“I feel jovial at having succeeded in this narrowly defined goal,” Johnson said.
Without the pollution from Lausche, Athens will see an improvement in public health, Kanfer said. Burning coal emits many dangerous chemicals including mercury and hydrochloric acid that cause problems such as heart disease and asthma. Lausche currently generates dozens of toxic chemicals in varying amounts.
“It’s going to make a big difference in people’s lives,” Kanfer said. “It’s going to make a big difference in people’s health.”