The University of Virginia has come under increasing pressure over its heating plant’s use of coal, which clean energy advocates say is a dirty and dangerous type of fuel that harms public health and hinders the university’s efforts to be a leader in sustainability.
On Wednesday, student advocates hosted a day-long “Camp Out for Clean Energy,” which organizers said featured up to 70 students and community members coming to sign petitions to university President Teresa A. Sullivan, listening to live music and hearing an address by John Cruickshank, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter.
Thirty participants also stayed overnight in tents set up in the university’s McIntire Amphitheater, a move they said was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“It was a fun event — a good way to raise awareness while still having a pretty good time,” said Chris Linsmayer, an organizer of the event.
The Sierra Student Coalition club at UVa, which is focusing on a “Beyond Coal” campaign, put on the event. Organizers said they hoped to get Sullivan to set a concrete date by which the university will no longer burn coal.
“The immediate goal is to get President Teresa Sullivan of UVa to set a commitment date to retire the coal plant,” Linsmayer said.
Students said they wanted to see the university switch to renewable energy for its heating and cooling needs.
“I would say the next best thing would be to use solar, geothermal or wind to produce electricity,” said Kenneth Hawes, president of the SSC club.
University representatives cited both technical and cost concerns as preventing the university from moving completely away from coal. The university has experimented with using geothermal energy at its Fontaine Research Park, but Cheryl Gomez, director of energy and utilities at the university, said there have been significant implementation problems.
Currently the main heating plant primarily uses coal supplemented by natural gas and oil to produce steam and hot water, which is distributed to university buildings throughout the Grounds.
“[Retiring the plant] is not anything that we’ve talked about or discussed,” Gomez said. “There’s not enough capacity in the [natural gas] pipeline that comes into the urban ring area right now … somebody would have to build a new pipeline.”
However, event participants said that the downsides of coal justified additional costs. Coal byproducts have been linked to reduced ground-level air quality, mercury in waterways, acid rain and global warming. Several attendees also noted the irony of a coal-fired plant being located across the street from a “clean air zone” at the University Medical Center.
“I often see black smoke coming out of these smokestacks and it’s blowing against the Emily Couric [Clinical Cancer] Center,” said Cruickshank, who added that coal has been linked to elevated rates of cancer.
Gomez said that patient health was not at risk and that the university also recently installed baghouses that remove 99.9 percent of particulate emissions from the plant’s output.
“Most of what you see coming out of that heating plant, it’s water vapor from the scrubbers and from combustion,” said Gomez. “We have all the pollution control equipment on the plant and, also, the [smoke] stack is so high. Even the vapor they see is probably coming off the cooling towers.”
The university also notes that it saves $3.2 million a year by using coal rather than switching all of that capacity to natural gas. Event organizers said that they did not believe there were serious budgetary constraints.
Ultimately, the question comes down to the university’s public image, said Linsmayer. He said the university has committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 25 percent by 2025 and has seen an increasing focus on sustainability in both academics and administrative efforts.
“UVa always prides itself on sustainability,” said Linsmayer. “We think to be really sustainable you gotta get off coal.”
Wednesday’s event was part of a national “100 Actions for 100% Clean Energy” campaign. As part of this campaign, three UVa students were invited Thursday to meet with Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and other Obama administration officials in Washington D.C.
Members of the SSC plan to tour the heating plant today and meet with university officials next Monday. Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris has also expressed interest in meeting with Sullivan to discuss retiring the plant.