Open letter to UI President Bruce Harreld: End coal burning at the UI power plant immediately

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Climate strikers demonstrate on Riverside Drive in Iowa City against the burning of coal on the University of Iowa campus. Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. — courtesy of the Student Climate Strike

We are writing to you as concerned high school climate strikers, University of Iowa students, alumni, staff and Iowa City and area residents.

Last week, the University of California joined 7,000 other colleges and universities in committing to climate emergency plans. These institutions plan to reach carbon-neutral status by 2025. University of California President Janet Napolitano recognized “the need for a drastic societal shift to combat the growing threat of climate change.”

In 2025, the UI will still be winding down its antiquated coal-burning operations at the power plan. The UI’s 2020 sustainability goals released in 2008 are obsolete.

This week, as you know, world leaders are gathering in New York City at the U.N. Climate Summit to address the reality of our world’s climate emergency. Facing dwindling options, as UN chief Antonio Guterres noted, “we are losing that race.”

That climate emergency has already reached the front doors of your students and all Iowans. Last week, for example, western Iowa faced its third round of historic flooding in the last six months. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions increased by three percent in Iowa.

This climate emergency also defines the future of all of your students. Earlier this summer, the UI student government joined other Big Ten schools in declaring a climate emergency. Now, they need you to make good on that promise.

In 2017, you called sustainability “the most important issue of the 21st century.”

This summer, the Iowa City Council and the Iowa City school board have stepped up to the challenge and passed climate resolutions, calling on all city operations to fall in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and reach zero emissions by 2050.

In order to achieve these goals, we need the University of Iowa to unite with our town and revamp its outdated sustainability practices and goals, especially in regards to the nearly century-old coal-burning and natural gas-burning power plant located in the heart of our town and on our Iowa River.

In a nutshell: Coal burning is the main contributor to CO2 emissions; coal burning results in thousands of respiratory and heart ailments and deaths across the country; coal ash, including the UI residue dumped in Waterloo, results in increasing levels of cancer; coal mining still results in massive numbers of black lung disease for miners and toxic coal slurry discharges for local populations.

While the UI has pursued energy efficiency measures and the burning of biomass to offset its coal consumption — even as many experts view the burning of any wood and waste materials as a health hazard — the truth is that the UI power plant has doubled its use of another fossil fuel, natural gas, which has resulted in devastating fracking operations in our region, and produces catastrophic methane emissions.

As residents who must bear the burden of your fossil fuel-based operations in the heart of our city, it also concerns us that the university plans to sell the power plant to a private entity, with a 50-year lease that will impact the health and social well-being of our community, and our children’s future, without the input and agreement of city officials and community groups.

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Bottom line: Aiming for 40 percent renewable energy sources is simply not enough in an age of unfolding climate crises, especially when other universities are committing to 100 percent renewable energy sources. Overlooking the extraordinary movements on other campuses across the country for carbon neutral operations — including local food, zero waste and transportation — is no longer acceptable. The spraying of toxic pesticides, as well, is irresponsible.

It’s time for you, President Harreld, and the University of Iowa to join Iowa City as a partner, commit to the IPCC criteria, commit to 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2030, and end the burning of coal immediately in the power plant.

If the UI can petition the state of Iowa for $88 million in assistance to renovate the Pentacrest, then it can commit to pursuing climate action on your campus.

If the UI can rally the community to raise $98 million to renovate football stadium seats, then it can commit to pursuing climate action on your campus.

More than a century ago, UI President Thomas Macbride warned our state not to ignore the environmental crisis at hand: “The people would act today if the situation were clearly understood. The question is whether we do the right thing now or wait until the expense shall have increased a hundredfold.”

It’s time for you and the University of Iowa to do the right thing now.


Iowa City Climate Strikers
100 Grannies
Sen. Joe Bolkcom
Ann F. Christenson, UI alum ’58
Massimo Paciotto-Biggers, on behalf of IC Climate Strikers
Maddie Patterson, UI student
Elisabeth Neruda, UI student
Jaden Amjadi, UI student
Derian Lance, UI student
Isaac Kippes, UI student
Jessica Oliver, UI student
Sheila Zeithamel, UI alum
Tom Yates, UI alum
Becky Hall, UI alum
Tom Carsner, UI alum
Mary Kirkpatrick, UI alum
Joan Cook, UI Alum Jan Stephan, RN MA UIHC retired
Jeff Biggers, UI Writer-in-Residence, Office of Sustainability, 2013-2017
Charlene Lange, Pat Bowen, Geoff Lauer, Deb Schoelerman, Miriam Kashia, Carla Paciotto, Erika Lauer, John Christenson, Blair Frank

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  1. The well-meaning protesters didn’t say what they think the solution is (or maybe the article just didn’t include it). They’re only quoted as saying “do something.” What is that something? Natural gas? I’m curious what the practical, realistic, affordable – and immediate, as they demand – replacement to coal may be.

  2. OK I did some googling around about clean energy.

    Depending on where you live, your energy might come from a coal or a gas-fired power plant, a nuclear plant, a hydroelectric dam, wind turbines or even solar panels.

    For the country overall, the relative proportions of each type of electricity have stayed constant for about the past 15 years:
    • Coal and natural gas produce 70 percent of our electricity
    • Nuclear power generates about 20 percent
    • Renewable sources (like wind and hydropower) provide about 10 percent.

    Burning coal and natural gas to generate electricity releases billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into the atmosphere, so switching to more “clean” energy sources would help curb a lot of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are partly responsible for warming the climate.

    So where is all this “clean energy” going to come from? Obama’s plan counted natural gas as “clean,” since even though it produces CO2, the emissions for each kilowatt hour (kWh) generated are only half as much as you get with coal. If we left all current gas-burning plants in place but didn’t build any new ones, hitting the 80 percent target would mean about two-thirds of the country’s coal power would need to be replaced. That’s not a simple task, because coal alone provides close to half of America’s electricity.

    Ignoring the costs, here are some of the ways the U.S. could replace enough coal power to meet an 80 percent clean energy sources target by 2035.

    • We could build 243 hydroelectric dams that have Hoover Dam’s generating capacity (that’s 10 new dams a year, on average). Mind you, that means we would also need 243 mighty rivers like the Colorado that don’t already have dams on them. There aren’t enough rivers left in the U.S. to support that number of large dams, and smaller dams alone can’t generate enough electricity to replace coal power plants.

    • We could build 194,900 wind turbines, each having 2 megawatts (MW) of capacity (a typical size). That would mean building more than 8,000 new turbines each year, or 22 turbines a day, every day, for 24 years. Even if this is doable, we’d also have to overhaul the U.S. electrical grid, and add a way to store electricity, in order to safely and reliably use the intermittent flow of electricity that comes from wind turbines.

    • We could build 64 new nuclear power plants the size of New York’s Indian Point power station. Since the Fukushima disaster in Japan last spring, however, that kind of construction rate, with nearly four nuclear plants being built each year, no longer seems realistic. And keep in mind, the U.S. hasn’t built a new nuclear plant in over 20 years.

    • We could build 10,200 solar energy farms — but each one would have to be the size of Nevada’s Copper Mountain solar array, which is currently the country’s largest. The amount of space needed for this number of solar panels: an area about three times the size of Delaware.

    • Or, we could keep using coal-fired power plants as long as they are outfitted to capture and store the CO2 exhaust instead of releasing it into the atmosphere — a technology called CCS, or carbon capture and sequestration. But using CCS makes a plant less efficient in generating electricity, so not only would every existing coal plant in the country need to be outfitted with CCS, but we would have to build 133 new plants that would also be equipped with CCS technology. At the moment, the U.S. doesn’t yet have a single coal-fired plant operating with CCS.

    • We could all improve our energy efficiency, but switching light bulbs won’t be enough. Even if everyone in the U.S. changed all their incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent lights, it would still only save about one percent of the total electricity needed to meet the 80 percent target.

    All these options still involve getting about 20 percent of U.S. electricity from natural gas, which produces greenhouse gas emissions. And right now, all of the clean energy sources mentioned here are considerably more expensive than coal.

    It’s pretty clear that not one of these options, on its own, is very practical – getting rid of most U.S. coal-powered electricity will take a mixture of all the above.

  3. Andrew,

    A lot of good information.

    Here in Iowa, wind production provides 51% of electricity for MidAmerican customers, and MidAmerican is aiming for 100% renewable energy. Solar energy is also the fastest growing business in the Corridor.

    As this letter notes, over 7,000 universities have committed to carbon neutral campus operations by 2025 or so. Each campus is different in their approach, but clean energy solutions are as cheap as dirty energy.

    The IPCC made it clear that we have very few years left to cut carbon emissions in order for Iowa students to have a future. That’s the real cost.

    I think everyone agrees that the University of Iowa needs to stop burning coal now, and work with clean energy experts to get off natural gas as soon as possible.

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