Switching from coal is not an option yet

By Tara Kulash

Although students from the Beyond Coal campaign are pushing for alternative options to provide energy on campus, it’s likely the university will not switch from coal anytime in the near future.

The group met Monday with Chancellor Rita Cheng, Phil Gatton, director of plant and service operations, and Kevin Bame, vice chancellor for administration and finance, to discuss alternatives to the campus’s coal plant.

“As an institution of higher learning, we have a responsibility to show leadership on global warming,” said Daniel Younker, a senior from Downer’s Grove studying philosophy pre-law.


The dangers of coal, he said, include the release of hazardous pollutants such as lead, arsenic and mercury. It also has a link to asthma, lung cancer, birth defects and cardiovascular disease. Younker said these emissions are unavoidable even with state-of-the-art scrubbers and technology. He also said the coal plant’s emissions violates the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations.

Gatton told Younker his point was irrelevant because the violation refers to when the main boiler is shut down for cleaning. He said when it’s shut down, the monitoring system is turned off as well, which makes the system appear offline. With that issue, notifications are sent to the EPA, so the plant isn’t actually doing anything wrong, he said. That time is typically used to switch to natural gas, Gatton said.

He also said the university’s coal plant puts out an incredibly small amount of mercury, but declined to specify the exact amount. He said it’s not something to be worried about.

Younker said he still thinks switching from coal would be beneficial. He said Beyond Coal has four requests for the administration.

The first request is for the university to solicit bids from contractors to close the coal boilersby May 1 in favor of alternative energy. This plan would include finding solar geothermal and carbon neutral biofuels, not including corn or other inefficient ethanol. Younker asked the bids be made public on the university’s website and requested five bids be received by May 1.

Beyond Coal also requests all energy systems be completed by Aug. 31, 2017, which Younker said would be possible.

Cheng said the goal to receive bids from contractors is unrealistic.

“(Contractors) are not going to put in the time that we would need to put serious bids to close our coal boiler when they know we’re not going to close our main boiler,” she said.

The state procurement requires the university to have serious intentions before requesting bids, Cheng said.

Gatton said the university made a commitment to clean coal many years ago. The university’s Coal Research Center was started in 1974 to coordinate efforts to improve the efficiency of coal mining and coal use, according to SIU’s website.

It’s become a big investment, and to drop a large investment for another one would not be supported by the state. He said the university has a circulating fluidized bed boiler, which takes pulverized coal, puts it into an 80-foot air stream and mixes it with sulfur-capturing limestone. It was a $50 million investment, he said, with a life expectancy of about 40 more years.

If the university were to take on an alternative project with no state funding, Bame said, it would result in students paying for it. He said tuition and/or fees would have to increase.

Ruby Roknic, a sophomore from La Grange Park studying civil environmental engineering, said while other universities such as Eastern Illinois Univeristy have had to raise tuition for such causes, she hasn’t heard any complaints from students about it.

Gatton said while he’s not sure the tuition can be directly correlated, EIU has had a significant decrease in enrollment.

Jarid Perrin, a senior from Lindenwood studying forestry, said he wants Beyond Coal and the administration to be able to work together toward a common goal.

“We need to know that a dialogue is actually happening and that we are openly considering going in a more sustainable path,” he said.

Perrin suggested the university educate students about the steps being taken to be greener at the New Student Orientations. He said it could invoke new enthusiasm in the students, which would give more credence to put effort into the movement. Cheng said she thought this suggestion was a good idea and would consider it for the future.

Roknic suggested installing better insulation and more LED lights on campus. Cheng said insulation has already been installed in many buildings, and Gatton said there have been more than 30,000 light bulbs replaced so far.

In regards to using more efficient biofuels, Cheng said, that would be something to have a conversation about, perhaps switching to a material such as wood chips.

Gatton said there has been geothermal energy installed in certain buildings such as the Tech Center, McLafferty Annex and the Stone Center. The university is also on the brink of hiring a sustainability consultant, he said.

Gatton said if students really want to make a difference, they could try to conserve more energy, because 50 percent of electricity comes from coal.

He said if students would cut back on electricity use, it would have a more positive effect on the campus — rather than the university cutting back on its coal use.

“I think there needs to be at least some recognition that the university has tried to burn coal as clean as we can. There will always be disagreements about whether coal is the right source or not, but the reality is, coal will continue to be used for a period of time.”

Roknic said she thought the meeting went as well as was possible.

“We’re on positive terms for more communication in the future,” she said.