U.S. universities using less coal for heat, power

Constellation Energy's coal-fired Brandon Shores power plant in Anne Arundel County, Md., Jan 15, 2012. President Barack Obama unveiled his plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on June 25, 2013 at Georgetown University in Washington. (Shannon Jensen/The New York Times)
(Shannon Jensen/The New York Times)

U.S. colleges and universities have burned coal to produce electricity and heat for 200 years.

Now they’re using far less of it. The country’s educational institutions, pushed by rising hopes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, have cut coal consumption by almost two-thirds over the past eight years, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Universities reduced the amount of coal they burn to 700,000 tons in 2015 from 2 million tons in 2008, a dip of 65 percent. Moreover, consumption fell at all 57 institutions that burned coal in 2008.

Twenty of them quit using the fossil fuel entirely, according to the Energy Department’s information administration.

In 2006, a small group of American college and university presidents created a program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, more than 650 have signed on. Some switched power plants to natural gas, others burned biofuels and some bought more electricity from municipal power grids.

U.S. universities don’t use much coal, in the big picture — less than 0.1 percent of total U.S. consumption in 2015. But the reduction is substantial: 2 million tons would fill about 20,000 train cars; 700,000 would fill just 7,000.

The largest reductions since 2008 occurred at schools in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri and Tennessee. Institutions in Indiana collectively reduced coal consumption by 260,000 tons, or 81 percent, and replaced it largely with natural gas and geothermal heat. Schools in Michigan reduced use by more than 80 percent and adopted natural gas as a replacement. Some institutions in Missouri added more renewable sources of power, such as biomass. Three institutions in Tennessee stopped using coal between 2008 and 2015, resulting in a 94 percent drop in coal consumption.

Educational institutions in New York, South Carolina, Idaho and South Dakota stopped using coal altogether.