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MSU students say they will draw up alternative energy transition plan

A coalition of Michigan State University students, frustrated with the university’s newly minted energy transition plan, announced Friday it will submit an alternative plan to MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon by Feb. 28.

“This plan ends with language alone,” Talya Tavor of MSU Beyond Coal said of the administration’s plan. “There is no actual plan to get to 100 percent renewable energy.”

Tavor and another MSU student, Adam Litek of Greenpeace, served on the steering committee of 24 MSU faculty members, staff and students that came up with the energy plan, unveiled Jan. 17.

“We felt we were there as really good pictures,” Tavor said of herself and Litek.  “But when it came time to listen to what the students wanted, they didn’t.”

The student groups want the university to pull the plug on its T.B. Simon Power Plant, the largest coal-burning university power plant in the nation, as soon as possible.

MSU’s energy transition plan declares an “ultimate goal” of “100 percent renewable energy,” but does not specify a time frame. Instead, it lays out a series of stepwise targets, from 15 percent renewable energy by 2015 to 40 percent by 2030.

Short-term strategies include switching to more natural gas, which emits 45 percent less carbon dioxide than coal, and using more biomass at the power plant.

Friday’s student speakers said the plan ignores new energy storage technologies, inflates campus growth projections, underestimates the potential of energy conservation, efficiency and solar energy, and wrongly assumes that burning biomass is carbon neutral, among other shortcomings.

“We had to set targets based on the knowledge and technology we have today, not what might come along,” Jennifer Battle, assistant director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and a member of the steering committee, said. “Our planning window stops at 2030, but we intend to review the plan in detail, robustly, every five years.” 

Tavor said the students on the steering committee weren’t given access to the modeling tool used to run the various energy scenarios.

“The modeling tool was only utilized by two people on the steering committee,” Tavor said.

Battle said more than two committee members worked with the model, including herself, power plant and Office of Management and Budget staff members, faculty and others. All those who worked with the model, she said, were trained to use it before the committee was formed.

“The model is very complex and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of spreadsheets,” Battle said. “With a time limit of one year [to finish the plan], it didn’t make sense to spend 90 percent of the time training people in how to use it.”

Tavor said she and Liter wanted to train. “There wasn’t time in a year?” she asked. “That doesn’t sound legitimate.”

Simon will submit the steering committee’s plan, with or without modifications, to the Board of Trustees at its next meeting, April 13, for final recommendation.

The Beyond Coal coalition plans to submit its alternative plan to Simon Feb. 28.

“They can have a 40 percent renewable plan from the university or a true 100 percent renewable plan from the students,” Tavor said.

“If there’s an alternative, I’d love to see it,” Battle said.  “I don’t see it as dueling plans. I feel we’re going in the same direction.”

Thursday, at a public forum at the East Lansing Library, MSU Professor David Wiley offered moral support to anti-coal student activists.

Wiley, an expert on Africa, described the disproportionate health cost of climate change there. He also reminded the group that MSU was the first university in the nation to pass sanctions against companies operating in South Africa under the apartheid regime.

“So the Board of Trustees at MSU is capable of doing some forward-looking things,” Wiley told the group.