Seven months ago, UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp advised students from the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign that in pressing the university to reduce its reliance on coal, "you might wish to consider working with campuses not as advanced as ours."
Instead of heeding his advice, the persistent students forced UNC to prove exactly how advanced it is.
Last week, Thorp stood with those same students atop a grass-covered solar-paneled campus parking deck, and UNC became the first university to announce plans to end its coal use since the Sierra Club targeted 60 universities to do just that last September.
Thorp and the students posed for pictures, thanked one other in front of TV cameras and celebrated a major step in campus energy policy: In 10 years, UNC will stop burning coal at its Cogeneration Plant in favor of woody biomass and natural gas. The university will also explore solar options.
Previously the university had committed to going carbon neutral by 2050 but hadn't set a firm date for getting off coal.
UNC's reversal happened because the UNC students, buoyed by the Sierra Club's broad resources and support from faculty and the community, kept the pressure on, and Thorp, to his credit, warmed to their clean energy campaign.
"They were relentless and actually came back and said, 'That's not an answer we're going to take, so let's actually step back and have a more honest discussion about are we leading by burning coal,'" says Sierra Club National Coal Campaign Director Bruce Nilles, who spoke at the press conference. "The chancellor realized that is not a fly-by-night concern, this is actually students really serious about wanting to see progress."
Stewart Boss, coordinator of the Coal-Free UNC Campaign, says the local initiative struggled until renowned climatologist Jim Hansen visited campus and supported the students' effort. That was the turning point, Boss says.
"That ethical contradiction when you're a university that leads in research, was kind of building and building," Boss adds.
That same week, Thorp announced the creation of an Energy Task Force, a group of students, faculty, staff and outside experts who specialize in environment and policy led by N.C. Energy Policy Council Chairman Tim Toben. Thorp charged the task force with identifying a faster path to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
They had nine months. Toben used the first four meetings to discuss the Cogeneration Plant, to hear from the UNC energy staff, the consultants who crafted the school's Climate Action Plan, clean energy advocates and entrepreneurs in biomass and solar thermal technology.
The task force wrote an initial report as the semester concluded, encouraging UNC to end coal use by 2020, to purchase biomass from sustainable forests, to use only deep-mined coal—as opposed to mountain-blasted coal, as long as coal is needed—and to seek natural gas and solar options.
Even Toben says he was surprised when just two days later Thorp decided to adopt all of the group's recommendations.
"You end up in a lot of these processes taking baby steps; this chancellor took a giant step," Toben said.
How giant? In 2008, the campus cogeneration plant, which heats and cools 175 buildings, was responsible for 58 percent of the total campus greenhouse gas emissions. That same year, UNC burned 131,171 tons of coal. In 2009, usage dipped to 104,586 tons.
The task force also heard detailed accounts of the environmental and public health impacts of mountaintop removal. When coal is removed using that method, the mountains are blasted with dynamite and the extra sediment, which can contain toxic material, settles in the valleys and streams, polluting wells and air.
Though current negotiations to renew coal contracts will continue as planned, UNC will now make "best efforts" to buy only deep-mined coal until it's phased out completely. Boss says Coal-Free UNC will hold them accountable on that front.
Thorp originally maintained UNC doesn't buy coal that has been mined by mountaintop removal. That assertion is hard to confirm, considering that some of the vendors and companies sell and mine coal from different methods. In later meetings, UNC acknowledged it can't guarantee it doesn't use mountaintop-removal coal.
"We feel optimistic that we'll be able to make progress away from vendors that are supplying mountaintop-removal coal as we move through this process," Thorp said.
Now UNC must fulfill its promise. The cogeneration plant's circulating fluidized beds can burn natural gas, and workers plan to test wood pellets in the coming weeks. The real challenge, as the task force learned, will be finding a reliable and steady source of wood. None exists now on the scale UNC needs.
Still, Toben says, the task force could recommend 2020 as the cutoff date, largely because members are convinced that coal costs are increasing.
"The clear signal out there is the price of coal is going up," Toben says, noting recent national legislation regulating valley fills and coal ash.
"What these biomass suppliers were saying was we'll guarantee you a supply of biomass at the price of 2012 coal because they see the writing on the wall there and visionary leaders do as well."
Thorp acknowledges that the transition will be challenging, but he re-emphasized the university's track record on other sustainability projects. "We are confident we can achieve our goal in 10 years by using the same kind of creativity and ingenuity that our great energy services staff has used in the past," he said.
The Sierra Club is confident, too.
"I think the previous goals were perhaps more cautious than they needed to be," said N.C. Sierra Club Director Molly Diggins, a task force member. "I have a feeling once this chancellor makes a decision that things are going to move in a certain direction that they probably will."