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‘A step in the right direction’: More UW campuses moving off coal

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PLATTEVILLE (WKOW) -- When Brian Donner started working at UW-Platteville's heating plant about ten years ago, he was working solely with coal.

"The bad part about coal for a worker, if you're here for 12 hours at a time, the dust and dirt gets in your lungs and in your nostrils," he said. "So the worst part about coal is the environment where we're working in."

But the campus' sustainability coordinator, Amy Seeboth-Wilson, says soon, he won't have to.

"By the end of the week, we should be done using coal completely forever and ever," she said.

Platteville is one of eight UW campuses (Platteville, Superior, Eau Claire, Stout, River Falls, LaCrosse, Oshkosh and Stevens Point) across the state transitioning away from coal this month. They're moving toward more sustainable energy sources like natural gas to heat the 31 buildings on campus, going from using five million pounds of coal each winter to zero.

Plant Superintendent Ben Ballweg says not only will this cut heat-related greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent but make work easier for employees.

"It'll be a lot less work, a lot less maintenance, a lot less equipment to maintain … a lot less physical labor for the employees," he said.

But Nathan Jandl, assistant director of UW-Madison's Office of Sustainability, says the Madison campus is already coal-free and made the switch in March 2012.

So why are more campuses catching up now? Seeboth-Wilson says it's about availability. The contract that bound UW campuses to coal use is ending.

"We had a contract for coal, and when it was harder and harder to access the coal we needed through that contract, we all just needed to get rid of it," she said. "Basically, the coal industry is going away."

For students, it's a step in the right direction. Megan Belongeay, a junior studying engineering physics and renewable energy at UW-Platteville, helped calculate the greenhouse gas impact report for campus.

She says she's excited about the switch.

"It makes me very motivated to continue my progress with renewable energy," she said. "And it's really important for students to be part of the process."

Sam McKean, a sophomore also studying renewable energy, says moving off coal is a critical first step.

"It's going to make me feel a little bit better about going here … because not only are we going to start cutting our carbon footprint, but it's also a step towards a more renewable future."

And for heating plant employees like Donner, it means easy breathing.

Platteville is now working toward 100 percent renewable energy. And they say it's not just campuses going coal-free. By the end of the year, all state buildings, including prisons and mental health facilities, will stop using coal.

Seeboth-Wilson says it's important that universities lead the way.

"We view our role as really important in defining a sustainable future because campuses are where people come to learn about the world and make the world a better place."

Ester Wells

WKOW News

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