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With the national director of the Sierra Club’s coal campaign on hand to endorse the decision, Chancellor Holden Thorp today (May 4) announced that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will end its use of coal in the next decade.

With the national director of the Sierra Club’s coal campaign on hand to endorse the decision, Chancellor Holden Thorp today (May 4) announced that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will end its use of coal in the next decade.

 Watch the announcement

“Universities must lead the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy,” Thorp said. “Today, Carolina takes another big step in that direction.” The chancellor spoke from the green rooftop of the Rams Head Plaza, within sight of the solar panel array on the Morrison Residence Hall roof.

“Carolina is proud to be a national leader in sustainability in American higher education,” Thorp said. “Our systems for energy efficiency, cogeneration of electricity and steam, waste recycling, green building, mass transit and water conservation are models.”

Thorp said he expected Carolina’s decision to help guide other campuses. “We are in an unusual position because our cogeneration plant has a useful life of another 30 to 40 years,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to make this transition. We have challenges in making sure biomass will work in our existing boilers and challenges on the supply side as well. But we are confident we can achieve our goal in 10 years.”

As a step toward ending coal use, the cogeneration facility will test co-firing coal with biomass in the form of dried wood pellets later this spring and torrefied wood – a product similar to charcoal – this fall or winter. The University plans to replace 20 percent of its coal with biomass no later than 2015, and perhaps by 2012.

The 2020 date for ending coal usage was one of six interim recommendations submitted to Thorp April 29 by the Energy Task Force he appointed in January to study energy issues on campus. The chancellor accepted all of the group’s recommendations:

  1. End all use of coal on campus by May 1, 2020;
  2. Accelerate conversion from coal to a cleaner fuel or fuel mix;
  3. Source biomass, if used, from certified “sustainably managed” forests, as determined by third-party verification;
  4. Make best efforts to identify and secure coal that is certified by a third party and sourced from deep mines only;
  5. Optimize use of natural gas as supplies and costs warrant; and
  6. Undertake periodic reviews of the potential for solar thermal and solar photovoltaic system installations.

“UNC has made a decision today to lead by example,” said Bruce Nilles, who oversees the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “College campuses cannot responsibly teach the science of climate change and sustainability in classrooms powered by coal. Although we’d love to see coal use end today, we applaud UNC for agreeing to a firm deadline.”

Last year, the Sierra Club’s Coal-Free Campus Campaign targeted 60 U.S. campuses that are still burning coal, including UNC and its coal-burning cogeneration facility. The Sierra Club urged these campuses to lead by example, cut their pollution, and end burning coal as soon as possible.

In response, Thorp appointed 10 students, faculty and community members to a task force to make recommendations before year’s end to reduce Carolina’s carbon footprint. One task force member is Molly Diggins, the state director of the Sierra Club. The task force is led by Tim Toben, who is also chair of the N.C. Energy Policy Council.

“Carolina’s cogeneration facility is one of the cleanest-burning, most efficient coal plants in the country and has won national awards for efficiency from the Environmental Protection Agency,” Toben said. “But it still burns coal, and that must end to avoid contributing to the worst effects of global climate change. And unless you set a deadline for ending coal usage, you’re not going to get to it.”

Toben said the University’s coal decision already is generating positive reaction. He has heard from James Hansen, the internationally recognized global climate change expert at the National Aeronauticsand Space Administration, who visited and spoke on campus in February.

Hansen wrote in an e-mail to Toben, “UNC-Chapel Hill is a model for how students and a university can work together with a civil constructive approach to ending our national addiction to coal.  It is good to see a university demonstrating the rational approach to problem solving. We need to somehow overcome the uncivil discourse that has infected current politics.”  

Stewart Boss, coordinator for the Coal-Free UNC Campaign and co-chair for the UNC chapter of the Sierra Student Coalition, commended Thorp and other UNC administrators for listening to the students’ concerns. “We have been fortunate to work with a university that has been responsive, open-minded and willing to hear our story,” Boss said. “Our universities should be at the forefront of developing clean energy technologies and preparing students to be clean energy leaders. I hope other universities will soon follow UNC’s lead in moving beyond coal.”

The Energy Task Force’s interim recommendations deal with UNC’s energy supply. The group will next turn its attention to improving energy efficiency in buildings, making its final recommendations in September.

Energy Task Force website:
Sustainability website:
Rams Head Plaza:
Morrison Residence Hall solar panels:

News Services contact: Susan Houston, (919) 962-8415,

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