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.
Certainly this is a good start. It may also mean that these institutions are using less fresh water.
Yesterday I saw what I thought was a forest fire near Chama, New Mexico, a few miles north. Smoke hung over the highway but it was black, not gray. The smoke was so thick I could not see far down the road, and I thought about turning around to avoid either a fire or crashing into another car. Then I heard the sounds of a steam-driven locomotive engine. Hee. The power unit runs off coal, and it was astonishing to see how much smoke it produced. "Back in the day" these trains must have spewed an astounding amount of pollution in the air, and I can not even imaging what it was like to ride a train when it went into a tunnel.
A LOT of that was particulates, and it was eff-in miserable to be in those trains when they went into a tunnel -- and you had the windows open.
Locally WMU stepped away from coal some time ago
We still have problems (wasting over $20 million from the general fund yearly, for over a decade and continuing now, to prop up an athletic program that can't pay for itself is a big issue) but are trying to get better.
Second comment: until 2015 the coal powered ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee was still dumping coal ash from its boilers in Lake Michigan. That's stopped (although the ferry still runs on coal): the owners spend several million to develop an on-board storage system for the ash: it's sold (I believe sold) for use in road repair in WI.
One word: Electric boats.
"One word: Electric boats."
Difficult step: Overcoming the nostalgia expressed by defenders of the ferry when they said "It would be a shame to lose such a romantic link to our past."
Ferry boats can be electric.
Can't help but think how ironic it is that dumping the ash in Lake Michigan would offset the effects of acid rain... But given that stopping the acid rain problem is one of the few success stories we've got, it's no longer helpful. (And there are other obvious problems anyway.)
But ferry boats can be electric. Might even be able to simulate the occasional boiler explosion, if people really want to be romantic about the past...