Known for its maize and blue, the University also prides itself on being green. Student activists, however, are putting the administration’s commitment to the test. The Michigan Student Assembly Environmental Issues Commission is campaigning to dramatically increase the University’s renewable energy purchases. MSA recently passed a resolution recommending that one-third of the University’s energy come from renewable sources as soon as possible, with the intention of increasing that to half by 2011 and 100 percent by 2015. The goal may seem lofty, but as the Bush administration politely ignores the facts of global warming, universities around the country need to bind together and step up their commitment to sustainable energy.
The University spends more than $50 million annually on electricity. Less than a third of its purchased energy comes from the University’s Central Power Plant. The remainder is purchased from the general power grid, which is connected to coal powered plants across the state. Converting even a fraction of the University’s massive amount of purchased energy to renewable sources would make a difference for both the environment and possibly the state’s economy. Because of a lack of in-state renewable sources, the University would initially purchase credits from other parts of the country. The hope is that the credits will eventually be available locally.
The state is lagging in alternative-energy production, but not for lack of potential. Michigan is rated 14th in the country for wind power capability, yet only three turbines are currently operational. Why? The lack of demand is one possibility.
Wind power often comes at a slightly higher cost, and the sputtering local economy has everyone focused on short-term costs. A pledge by the University to purchase renewable energy credits will do more than send a message; it will guarantee demand, which is the first step to increasing supply. Starting with Gov. Jennifer Granholm and moving on down the line, everyone agrees that Michigan’s economy needs to be revamped. In the long term, wind power is a much better investment than narrowly distributed ethanol.
Although the resolution passed by MSA may seem overly ambitious, it is part of a national trend on college campuses. New York University purchases 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources. Also, public universities in California and Pennsylvania have formed consortiums that allow the schools to gradually increase their percentage of renewable energy with little increase in cost. Michigan has a strong network of state universities that could emulate a consortium model, but one school must take the lead.
Administrators have been considering purchasing renewable energy credits since late 2004, but concerns about the increased cost and constant increase in energy needs have stalled a decision. Students on the MSA Environmental Issues Committee will face tough competition for funding, but hopefully broad student support will lead the University to make the commitment, create the demand and invest in a clean and sustainable future.
Amanda Burns can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org