College students around the Midwest are pressuring their institutions to move away from coal-powered energy plants – and they’re beginning to make some inroads.

Administrators at Ball State University, in Muncie, Ind., have opted to replace their coal power plant with a campus-wide geothermal energy system.  Officials at the Missouri University of Science and Technology have also moved to replace their 65-year-old coal plant in favor of  geothermal, using the transition as a learning opportunity for their students. And at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, administrators announced earlier this year that they plan to retire their aging coal plant by 2016.

The developments come just two years after the Sierra Club launched the Campuses Beyond Coal campaign on ten campuses, harnessing the energy of students and faculty who have argued that coal plants emit greenhouse gas, as well as toxins that are harmful to community health.

The Campuses Beyond Coal campaign has now taken root at 35 different schools with coal plants. Organizers say momentum is building at several schools in the Midwest, including Michigan State University, the University of Cincinnati, and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

Kim Teplitzky, the coordinator of the Campuses Beyond Coal campaign, says the most difficult part about the campaign has been dealing with schools that receive large amounts of contributions from the coal industry. Simply overcoming the status quo has also been a challenge, she said. Some schools have had coal plants for up to 80 years.

“On these campuses it can be difficult to convince people to change something they’ve been doing for a long time,” said Teplitzky, who as an undergrad led a transition to wind power at Philadelphia’s Temple University.

Teplitzky says campuses are a fitting place to push the case for clean energy. Schools need “to constantly be looking at newer, safer, cleaner technology that can brand the schools as innovators and leaders,” she said.

Efforts to pressure more schools are not likely to relent soon, either. Organizers have identified more than 60 schools around the country with coal plants on their campus – including both the University of Iowa and Iowa State University – and say they will continue working until each moves away from coal. A national day of coordinated action is being planned now.

Outside the Ivory Tower, though, the landscape is a bit different. Cheap and abundant, coal is used to generate almost half of the electricity produced in the United States. The country’s 600 coal-powered plants consume about one billion short tons of coal per year.

And although renewable energy is helping meet the United States’ growing energy demands, the actual amount of coal used is expected to rise unless U.S. policy shifts in a different direction. If President Obama’s decision late last week is any indication, these students may need have some post-graduate work on their hands.

Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia via Creative Commons.