Sustainability | Web Update

Campus coal usage reduced, not eliminated

Published: January 21, 2012, 4:13 pm ET
Collegian Staff

Members of GreenUR are continuing to protest coal burning at the University of Richmond.
In October 2011, members staged a die-in that was intended to lobby for the elimination of coal burning at the University of Richmond’s steam plant and, though the plant’s coal usage has been reduced greatly over the past year, the protest’s impact on this fact may be minimal.

The steam plant, located behind the Tyler Haynes Commons, had been burning coal almost exclusively until this past summer, when it increased its use of natural gas. Megan Zanella-Litke, the university’s sustainability coordinator, said she expected that the use of coal this year would decrease about 90 percent to 95 percent from previous years.

“The steam plant has four burners in it, two of which are tri-fuel burners, so you can use coal or oil or natural gas in them, but the other two are strictly coal,” she said.

“For most of the year, we operate with just two of the burners to produce steam for campus, so we’re fine on just natural gas for the majority of the year, but when it gets super cold, we have to light up the third burner.”

This reduction was made prior to GreenUR’s protest, which consisted of several members coughing and falling to the ground in the campus forum. Jerry Giordano, president of GreenUR, said although he thought it had been successful in increasing awareness of the coal plant outside and of its harmful effects, he would have communicated the message differently in retrospect.

“A lot of times, it’s just a lack of information and though I still believe that, yes, objectively it is in everyone’s best interest to address climate change than to not, it’s more effective to just speak to people as equals instead of being so aggressive about it,” he said.

Freshman Jenni Swegan, now co-vice president of GreenUR, worked as media liaison for the demonstration. She echoed Giordano’s concerns with the protest, saying it was important to keep in mind her club’s college demographic.

“We’re still working on improving our understanding of how students respond to the ways that we try to talk to them about our concerns,” she said, “and I think to some people, we came off as the crazy activists who do stupid stuff like pretend to die.”

Giordano said coal consumption was reduced for economic reasons and the reduction would not continue in the future.

“This is the first year where coal is more expensive than natural gas, so [...] this wasn’t the administration being like, ‘We’re going to very nobly cut back on our burning of coal.’ It was just pure economics,” he said.

He also said that it helped that this has been a warm winter.

Along with the protest, GreenUR successfully received 1,000 student signatures on its petition to eliminate the coal burning. Giordano said President Edward Ayers had always been on the club’s side on this issue, but that the petition had been an important step.

“For [Ayers] to be able to go to bat for us in front of the board of trustees, [...] he needed to be able to point to the student body and say, ‘Look, they care about this, and they’re willing to change their behavior because of it,’” Giordano said.

“The part that we still got a little tripped up over is that maybe there’s this general perception among the board that Richmond kids are lazy, rich kids who aren’t willing to meet them halfway by turning off the lights all the time when they leave the room or really simple lifestyle things.”

As for the actual reduction in coal, Zanella-Litke said she didn’t want the switch to natural gases as a primary fuel to be overlooked as something minuscule, and that GreenUR’s actions had kept the coal issue at the top of the administration’s to-do list and wouldn’t let it slide down.

“Our role is to constantly be pushing them to not rest on their laurels and be like, ‘Yay! We’re using more natural gas and less coal than we did before, so we can take it easy for a while,’” Swegan said. “We’re constantly gently reminding the administration that using any coal is really not acceptable health-wise or environmentally.”

Swegan said she ultimately hoped the use of natural gases would be just an intermediate step between coal and 100 percent renewable energy.

Contact staff writer David Weissman at

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  • Megan Wilson

    Have you all thought of looking into what job losses might be involved if the plant switches totally over to natural gas?