University should consider renewable energy sources

This Monday, members of our student body engaged in a flash mob protest to demonstrate opposition to the framing of Washington University’s “Energy Future” conference. The conference promoted a vision of future energy sources that left out renewable energy such as wind and solar and directed its emphasis to nuclear power, clean coal and genetically engineered biofuels.

The protest was organized by members of Green Action who, through comprehensive initiatives that target many elements of the student body, have sought to cultivate broad-based support for their disapproval of the University’s marketing of the term “clean coal” and their concern over the influence of coal executives on the University’s board of trustees.

We are similarly concerned by the fact that promotional materials for the “Energy Future” conference displayed the Washington University in St. Louis logo next to three equally-sized logos of Ameren UE, Arch Coal, Inc. and Peabody Energy, all of whose CEOs are members of the University’s board of trustees. The board of trustees effectively owns our University, and this marketing position demonstrates the pervasive influence of their corporate missions upon the external reputation of our University. We are likewise alarmed by the fact that a conference purporting to discuss our “Energy Future” did not include renewable energy sources.

Moreover, the University is the chair of the International Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization, whose title includes what many consider a slanted term. What is commonly referred to as “clean coal” poses problems that include the environmental hazards of mountaintop removal and the social justice issues posed by the devastation of mine workers’ communities. We believe that references to coal by the University should not be modified by the word “clean,” but instead should use scientific language to refer to carbon capture and sequestration.

A balanced and pragmatic approach by the University would ideally incorporate the use of current technologies as an interim step toward the eventual adoption of renewable resources. While current technology that can help make the most of the currently available fuel sources is necessary to bridge the gap, the lack of attention to a more renewable future is disconcerting. We would like to see at such conferences the benefits and drawbacks of each type of energy available to us both currently and in the future, and we are dismayed to see a lack of balance in this regard.

Last year, Richard Axelbaum—a faculty member and the director the Consortium—informed members of Green Action that there had not been sufficient student pressure to encourage the University to alter its positions on coal. On Wednesday, Student Union Senate passed a resolution in support of the protesters’ activism, and next week, its members will debate the adoption of a resolution regarding the University’s use of the term “clean coal” generally. SU is a vehicle through which we can show the University that these positions, as well as the promotional activity devoted to advancing them, demand reconsideration and that we as students have a voice in the matter.

But SU resolutions effectively do very little. We feel that individual students can combine to make a far greater collective difference with responses like that which we saw from Green Action Monday night. Given the potential for this kind of wide-spread student vocalization, we encourage you to research the challenges of coal utilization for yourselves to determine an intelligent and measured stance on how the University should move forward in projecting our world’s energy future. Moreover, we encourage you to write to Matthew Malten, assistant vice chancellor for campus sustainability and other school officials about your viewpoints. It is also important, in the long run, that we reach outside the Wash. U. community for support to ensure that the University hears the message that its reputation is intertwined with “clean coal” research that may prove hazardous for the future—our planet’s and our own.

  • David Hall

    We believe that references to coal by the University should not be modified by the word “clean,” but instead should use scientific language to refer to carbon capture and sequestration.

    This shows a complete lack of research into the matter by Student Life. A brief glance at the Clean Coal website would tell you that CCS is 1/3 of one of five goals of the consortium (geosequestration is the only thing on there that is capture or sequestration). Your idea is completely horrible. While I too don’t like the term “clean coal”, if you’re going to suggest a term to be used instead, at least be educated about it.

    I think it is great that the University is working on many of the topics on the Clean Coal page. Many of them are great topics that combine basic research with applications that would really make the burning of coal a much cleaner business. Alongside, you can see how many topics of I-CARES relate to the Clean Coal research. For instance, Stud Life’s favorite person to hate, Richard Axelbaum, is researching not only oxyfuel combustion of coal, but using the same basic principles he is discovering about combustion and applying them to combustion of microalgae, a renewable, phototrophic organism, as a fuel. Sounds to me like they are already doing exactly what you suggest of having a balanced research program, looking to both clean up a major current fuel source and push forward renewable ones.

    What I would suggest for current students is to not only research coal utilization, but the truth about how these researchers are spending their time. Stud Life seems to be presenting a very biased view on the matter and it is upsetting to me as an alumnus who worked on renewable energy sources (microbial fuel cells) while at the University, and saw the University invest internally through a Bear Cub grant to push the research forward toward being commercially licensed. The University and the researchers do care about renewable energy sources.