Campaign renews effort to move UW campuses ‘off the grid’

Posted October 21, 2015

With a student-led sustainability campaign emerging at UW-Stout in Menomonie, students at UW-River Falls are re-evaluating the university’s approach to nonrenewable energy.

The Environmental Corps of Sustainability (ECOS), a student organization that spreads awareness about sustainability on campus and advocates for further sustainability efforts to be made at UWRF, will likely take on the Seize the Grid campaign to go along with its current divestment plan, according to ECOS founder Daniel Saunders.

The Seize the Grid campaign, started by the Sierra Club, urges universities across the country that are dependent on nonrenewable sources of energy to transition to using 100 percent renewable energy. Through the campaign, students sign an online petition for their given universities with a goal of 5,000 signatures to encourage administrators to “demand enough clean energy from their utility providers to power the campus with 100 percent renewable energy,” according to the Sierra Club website.

Laura Donovan, alternative transportation student manager and applied social science major at UW-Stout, is heading the campaign for the university in the hopes of gaining student and administrative support. Right now, Donovan said, the campaign’s main focus is getting the word out about sustainability and collecting signatures for the petition through a social media campaign and tabling events.

Although the sustainability office in UW-Stout already has several initiatives in place to make the university more sustainable, such as the segregated green fee that allocates approximately $80,000 for sustainability-related projects and an online building dashboard that keeps track of each university buildings conservation efforts, Donovan said that she believes more can be done.

“I kind of feel like a lot of stuff that we do, I see them as little drops in the bucket,” Donovan said. “I think we could be doing more.”

However, the UW-System has statewide contracts that prevent the individual universities from transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. The state currently contracts for about 28,000 tons of coal, and universities in the UW-System are required to burn a certain amount of it, with the tonnage varying by campus, according to Michael Stifter, UWRF executive director of Facilities Planning and Management.

Through this, according to Stifter, UWRF currently burns approximately 500 tons of coal each year, which is about enough to get the university through the month of January. Natural gas is then burned for the rest of the year. Stifter also explained that the statewide contracts end in 2020, and universities were recently advised that the state of Wisconsin does not plan to pursue a new coal contract.

At UWRF, the ECOS divestment campaign started in 2013 and calls for the university to completely divest from fossil-fuel companies. According to Saunders, the petition for this campaign currently has about 400 signatures.

Saunders said that with the statewide contracts ending in four years, the Seize the Grid campaign would fit in well at the university.

“I think it does come at a good time,” Saunders said. “But at the same time it leaves us in limbo for these next four years. But it’s the next four years that are really most important.”

Saunders explained that Seize the Grid is reminiscent of the Carbon Action Plan, a campaign introduced to UWRF and other UW-System campuses by former Gov. Jim Doyle in 2008. The plan called for UWRF to go “off the grid” by 2018, meaning that the campus would have to make more energy than it was consuming.

Saunders said that although UWRF committed to the Carbon Action Plan, the university is nowhere close to being “off the grid.”

“If we still consider that document to mean anything, then Seize the Grid would be a great thing to sign off on and say we still believe in this cause,” Saunders said.

Mark Klapatch, sustainability coordinator for UWRF, said that although he believes the university should make the switch to renewable energy, changes will have to be made at the state level.

“If we were to switch to more renewable energy of some form, our plant would have to go through quite a few remodels, and that’s all depending on state funding,” he said. “It really needs to be a state-wide movement where the state is coming down to tell us that we need to use more renewable energy, and then provide us the funding and support for us to be able to make those modifications.”

Donovan said that UW-System campuses have to work together to make changes at the state level, adding that she believes the Seize the Grid campaign has the potential to really make a difference.

“Just imagining the whole entire system transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy, that’s a huge difference,” Donovan said. “Not only for the environment, but for the people that are affected by both the production and consumption of nonrenewable (energy). It’s huge.”