MSU makes progress toward creating a more sustainable campus

Michigan State University’s decision to end the burning of coal at its campus power plant is part of a greater goal of more sustainable campus practices.

Coal will no longer fire MSU’s power plant after 2016
Coal will no longer fire MSU’s power plant after 2016

In early April, Michigan State University (MSU) President, Lou Anna K Simon, announced that MSU will retire its on-campus coal plant by the year 2016. This announcement further demonstrates MSU’s commitment to being on the forefront of the higher education sustainability movement. MSU has already established itself as a leader in sustainability through recognition in 2008 by The National Wildlife Federation, as one of the top five sustainable universities in the United States. Additionally, other organizations have developed ranking systems to gauge university commitment to sustainability and green campuses.

As leader in sustainability, Michigan State University already has a wide variety of campus operations focused on increasing sustainability across multiple aspects of the University. These range from comprehensive recycling programs in residence halls to efforts toward reducing the University’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, MSU has increased LEED certifications for residence halls, installed an anaerobic digester on the campus dairy farm, and developed educational programs about energy and water use reduction and conservation.

One MSU educational program and conservation project was the diversion of 9,180 pounds of waste through the initiative to make the annual "Spartan Spectacular" a zero waste event in 2012. The 3,500 pounds of food waste from this event were taken to the anaerobic digester where the waste was then converted into energy.

According to the MSU 2014 Sustainability Report, these sustainability initiatives have been successful with recycling on campus increased by 60 percent since 2008 and its 2013 report shows a 43 percent reduction in materials hauled to landfills, representing 19 million pounds of materials removed from the waste stream.

The announcement to retire the coal plant is part of The Energy Transition Plan, which was adopted in 2012. This plan has three overarching goals; improve the environment, make resources available for investment into the research and development of sustainability energy, and demonstrate the university’s leadership role in sustainable energy.

Through implementation of this plan, MSU has committed itself to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by the year 2015. Overall since 2010 to 2014, there has been an 18 percent total reduction in these emissions. According to reports, in 2014, the T.B. Simon Power Plant used 1 percent biofuel energy, 28 percent coal, and 71 percent natural gas. As a result of the decision to stop burning coal, MSU is on track to reach its goal of 30 percent reduction by 2015 and moves it closer to the goal of generating 100 percent renewable energy. Although the switch to natural gas was a positive step in helping MSU reach its current energy goals, natural gas is not a renewable energy source and has higher greenhouse gas emissions than burning biofuels, indicating there is still a lot of progress to be made in order for MSU to reach its overall goal of 100 percent renewable energy.

As a part of a larger picture, this announcement is also an indication of a national trend of sustainability in higher education. In institutions across the country, there has been increasing interest in teaching sustainability and engaging in sustainable practices. The National Wildlife Federation has seen an increase in sustainable operations such as recycling, water consumption, sustainable landscaping, green buildings, campus farms, and waste reduction. More universities are making these operational changes because they yield tangible cost savings. Specifically at MSU, increased recycling has had significant savings, exemplified by the MSU Surplus Store and recycling programs returning 2.7 million dollars to university departments in 2014, according to the MSU 2014 Sustainability Report.

Michigan State University Extension provides additional information on the benefits of renewable energy, recycling and other technologies at its energy page.

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