Last Friday I had the pleasure of visiting Cornell University for the announcement of the school’s new combined heat/power gas plant. The school built the plant as the beginning of its mission to move away from coal – university officials estimate the campus will be entirely off coal in 18 months.

This is the latest step Cornell officials have taken in the effort to make the university carbon neutral. Four years ago they built a lake water cooling system that uses cold lake water to cool all of their buildings, a step that dropped the electricity needed for their cooling by 90 percent.  This is on top of aggressive energy efficiency efforts ongoing campus wide. I had the chance to sit down with Cornell officials and chat about their changes, check out the audio here on Cornell’s website.

It’s very impressive – Cornell is showing that we can do it (video!), and we can slash our global warming pollution and we can do it quickly.

I had two favorite moments at last Friday’s event. First – when Cornell President David Skorton said he looks forward to Cornell’s coal stockpile becoming a symbol of a time gone by; secondly, that the entire event was framed as “Moving Cornell Beyond Coal” on all the placards around the room.

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On the tour of both the school’s old coal-fired power plant and the new combined heat/power gas plant – it was as if I’d time-traveled. The coal facility was filthy with coal dust and clearly outdated. But the new facility was clean, sparkling and pristine – a sign of the switch to cleaner sources of energy.

Cornell University is just another great example of our institutions of higher learning moving beyond coal. Last year we launched our Campuses Beyond Coal Campaign and saw it achieve great success.

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The campaign’s accomplishments will continue this year, according to Kim Teplitzky, our coal campaign coordinator for the Sierra Student Coalition.

“Already we’ve launched efforts at five new schools, including Clemson, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and Michigan State University, and are gearing up to expand the campaign the even further into Iowa, Tennessee, Colorado and several other states,” said Teplitzky.

Teplitzky has seen the campaign’s great work first-hand, noting that college students are clamoring for immediate solutions, asking their universities to stop burning coal on campus in the next three years, and becoming leaders in implementing innovative, creative and forward thinking solutions such as using geothermal, designing better buildings and growing local economies with integrated biomass solutions. 

University administrators are seeing that they cannot meet their climate goals without getting rid of coal on their campus.

“And students aren’t just focused on their own schools,” added Teplitzky. “The campaign is engaging thousands of youth to demand the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and President Obama take action to ensure that coal ash is classified as hazardous waste and that EPA be allowed to do its job protecting the health and safety of communities affected by the dangers of coal nation-wide.”

We have the momentum and are looking forward to another year of great successes.