MSU Trustees Face Decision on Campus Clean Energy Plan

Apr 13, 2012

The Michigan State University Board of Trustees faces a pivotal decision today.  The board will decide whether to approve a strategic clean energy plan that would eventually transition the campus to 100 percent renewable energy.  The plan calls for MSU to produce 15 percent of its energy from renewables in just three years. 

The plan has been staunchly opposed by student environmental groups at MSU, who claim it’s not strong enough to effect any real change.  They’re also critical of the fact that the vision does not include scrapping the university’s coal-fired power plant.

For nearly half a century, Michigan State University has operated America’s largest university-based coal-fired power plant.  The T.B. Simon co-generation plant burns more than 200,000 tons of coal every year, feeding hot steam to about 550 buildings on campus.

But faced with rising fuel costs and increasingly evolving air quality standards, MSU is laying out its options for a cleaner energy future.  Now, the board of trustees will consider a plan drafted by a 24-member committee tasked with ensuring Michigan State University lives up to its self-endowed “Spartan Green” moniker.

As you might expect from such a diverse body that included engineers, business leaders, medical professionals, financiers and students, the committee’s final report is a compromise.

“Nobody got exactly what they want,” says Jennifer Battle.

Battle is the assistant director of campus sustainability at MSU.  She says the plan is built around five variables: the capacity for power generation, cost, reliability and environmental and health effects.  The centerpiece of the plan calls for the university to generate 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent.  Battle says this direction will move MSU towards total reliance on renewable.

“Balancing those five variables, really thinking about where our university is from an economic standpoint and what we have to provide power-wise for the university, this is still an aggressive but achievable plan, she says.

Not all members of the committee publicly endorse the plan.  Students representing two activist groups, MSU Beyond Coal and MSU Greenpeace, say the plan is little more than a first start.  They shun its benchmarks as too timid and its timeline too slow. 

“I understand some of the criticisms have been that we should have something to get us to 100 percent renewable energy in 20 years,” Battle says.  “And I just don’t think, and I think the committee doesn’t necessarily believe that’s feasible considering those five variables and the constraints that those pose.”

But many who believe otherwise are determined to disprove that.

(Street noise)

The “Rock,” a solitary rectangular monolith about six feet high just off Farm Lane on the MSU campus, is a perpetually changing message board.  On this day, it’s spray painted with an ad for a clean energy forum later that night.  Beside it stands a huge inflatable hand holding an inhaler that reads, “Big Coal Makes Us Sick.”

Talya Tavor is an asthmatic.  She’s also the president of MSU Beyond Coal.  She’s convinced 100 percent renewable reliance is attainable sooner than MSU claims it to be.

“It’s not just a gut feeling, it’s not just a political desire,” says Tavor.  “We have our own research from case studies that have been happening across the nation.  We can get there in a shorter amount of time.  It’s do we actually want to?”

Beyond Coal wants the university to shut down the T.B. Simon plant.  But that’s unlikely to happen.  It was designed as a “plug and play” facility, able to take on newer, better equipment.  But Tavor argues that employing a complete portfolio of renewable fuel sources – the university’s ultimate goal – would render the T.B. Simon plant obsolete.

“There is no renewable energy technology that would technically need the power plant, so why keep it?” Tavor asks.  “Why continue putting money into something that is just keeping you further away from renewable energy technology that can completely cover the university in a matter of time.”

As the energy transition plan goes before the MSU Board of Trustees, both students and administrators say they’re excited about their prospects for creating a cleaner campus.  Green has long been Michigan State University’s official color.  The question for the future is, how deep will its shade become.