UK clean energy rally 1This week, I spoke at the University of Kentucky, home to a polluting coal plant, lots of coal industry money, and a student body hungry to move beyond coal and embrace a clean energy future. Many of us look to colleges and universities as pioneers of new technology and innovation, where a new generation learns and leads. That’s definitely what I saw this week on the beautiful campus of the University of Kentucky.

UK students want their school to be a leader, too, but unfortunately the campus remains stuck in the past due to their ties to coal. They know that the state’s flagship university could be a beacon of hope for future generations if it chose to lead the way by investing in clean energy instead of coal.

The students know the reality: The entire cycle of coal — starting with the effects of mountaintop removal coal mining to the mercury pollution released from coal-burning power plants — is damaging to public health and the quality of life.

This is especially true in Kentucky, where mountaintop removal mining is ravaging the state’s beautiful eastern mountains and communities, while toxic coal ash and outdated coal plants are making residents sick throughout the state, most notoriously at Louisville Gas & Electric’s Cane Run plant, which is now slated for retirement.

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Despite the broad sweeping health impacts, the coal industry yields immense political power in states like Kentucky.  Even economically the numbers don’t add up – the coal industry accounts for less than 1% of Kentucky’s workforce and 3% of the state’s GDP. While these jobs are important for those families who benefit from them, investments in a clean energy future will begin to transition the state to new, long-term jobs for the Bluegrass State. The state’s flagship university could be a catalyst for clean energy transition in Kentucky. Inaction could leave Kentucky in a cycle of boom and bust economic uncertainty while its neighboring states invest in their future.

Kentucky has an abundance of clean energy resources waiting to be tapped. If Kentucky doesn’t seize the opportunity soon, it could miss out on thousands of new jobs and investments for the Bluegrass State. Just look at some recent stats:

  • Ohio is home to more than 9,000 renewable energy jobs and was second in the nation last year for solar panel manufacturing and installation. Meanwhile, Kentucky lost out on $3.5 million in solar installations contract dollars alone in 2010 to out-of-state companies for work done in Kentucky.
  • There are twice as many solar installations in Cincinnati alone as there are in the entire state of Kentucky.
  • Of the $12.6 billion in venture capital investments in clean energy from 1998-2008, $0 was invested in Kentucky — which is why we need our leading academic institutions to make Kentucky an attractive investment to clean tech industries
  • Switching from coal to clean energy can save universities big money. Ball State University in Indiana expects to save $2 million per year in operating costs by replacing their coal plant with a clean, renewable geothermal system.

Kentucky can do better than this, and UK can lead the way. Every corner of the state – from farmlands to cities – has the potential to become major players in clean energy, one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the U.S. today. By tapping into Kentucky’s clean energy resources and building existing momentum, we can curb energy costs and get the state’s economy back on track.

Moving Kentucky towards a clean energy future will create new, much needed jobs for working families — not to mention the thousands of graduating UK students each year. Two wonderful Kentucky-based organizations are working to chart this course to a clean energy future — Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

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UK clean energy rally 2

On the UK campus, students are taking the lead in calling for clean energy because they know there are better options for the Bluegrass State. UK is home to an outdated coal plant that doesn’t have modern pollution controls, and those coal boilers are creating air pollution that threatens the health of students and the local community. The students are calling on the university to retire its coal boilers and start investing in clean energy solutions.

Students are also calling upon UK to include coal in the list of harmful industries, along with big tobacco and alcohol, that UK Athletics currently refuses to take money from. This is an especially hot issue on campus right now thanks to the opening of a new dorm for basketball players called the “Wildcat Coal Lodge” that was partially funded by the coal industry.

Around the nation, colleges and universities are kicking coal off their campuses. Already one-third of universities with coal plants have committed stop burning coal on campus, thanks in large part to student led initiatives as part of the Sierra Student Coalition’s Campuses Beyond Coal campaign.

It’s time for UK to step it up.

Be a leader, UK. Be a model for current and future Wildcats — and help Kentucky chart a course for the future — by investing in clean energy.

Photos by Abdul Al-Jumaily.

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