A lot of higher education institutions are old, and back in the day, things were different. Not only were most schools simultaneously on top of and on the bottom of great snow covered hills, but they were often surrounded by nearly medieval settlement, or at least, pre-industrial ones, that lacked things like central heat, electricity, and so on, even after these things became common and normal.
I remember the legacy of this reality at my Alma Mater, a small university in Cambridge, Mass. Most of the campus had its own heating system, which was built at a time when centrally distributed electricity and such were certainly in place but just as certainly not universal. There, a power plant, which I am going to guess formerly burned coal but later natural gas and oil, made electricity for the general grid, but in so doing also produced steam. The steam was then shipped (mostly) across the river and quite a ways down the road to the campus, where it was distributed to many buildings to provide heat. At several points were grates that gave access to the steam heating system, creating open air warmer micro environment, on which homeless folks would sleep. It was a big deal when the University administration decided to put spiky metal barriers over the vents to keep the homeless people from having a chance to survive a cold winter. There was an outcry. The vents were uncovered in a matter of days.
But I digress.
Today’s news, which comes to us from the Department of Energy, is that educational institutions are using way less coal than they used to. And that makes sense only in the context of the above described sort of thing; educational institutions, as large and demanding places where people both lived in work, with many buildings and a lot of contiguous spaces, were among those places that historically developed their own electricity generation systems, as well as heating systems. Some of those electricity generating systems also fed out to the local grid, so the odd situation developed where among a region’s power plants would be one or more owned and operated by a university or college, or an agent thereof. And, a certain number of these burned coal.
But now …
Coal consumption by educational institutions such as colleges and universities in the United States fell from 2 million short tons in 2008 to 700,000 short tons in 2015. Consumption declined in each of the 57 institutions that used coal in 2008, with 20 of these institutions no longer using coal at all. Many of these institutions participate in the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, a program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Coal consumption has decreased as institutions switch from coal to natural gas or other fuels.
This coal consumption is less than a tenth of one percent of the total US coal consumption, so this may be little more than symbolic to some. But it isn’t. This is fossil fuel not being burned, and it means a lot.
The graph at the top of the post shows the trend.
This is not all good news. It is nice to reduce coal use, but a lot, most, of this coal has been replace with natural gas. However, in some cases, geothermal was used, and some renewable sources of energy have been deployed.