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Cleveland's elite institutions consider if coal has a place in their future

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/01/10 @ 10:30am  |  Posted in Clean energy

The alarm bells haven't started ringing, but environmental groups and concerned citizens are nervously eyeing a permit renewal for a coal-fired power plant in University Circle. It is likely the plant will continue to burn coal here, yet the renewal is seen as a litmus test as the city's cultural and intellectual elite-many of whom have taken a public stance to be more environmentally correct-expand their appetite for power to keep pace with an institutional growth spurt.

Much has been made about the benefits from the $1 billion invested in University Circle by these same institutions. Certainly there's evidence of a new chapter forming in the relationship between the 'Eds and Meds' and underserved Cleveland neighborhoods-from the much-vaunted Evergreen Cooperatives to the Social Justice Alliance Institute at Case's Mandel School for Applied Social Sciences hosting the East Cleveland Debut Collaborative Research Project.

As University Hospital, Case, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Cleveland Botanical Garden and other circle institutions expand, so have their power needs. Heat and air conditioning are the big draws of power, and supplying it is a little known operation, the Medical Center Company (MCCo). MCCo has been operating a power plant on campus since 1932, burning mostly coal during that time to provide steam for heat and chilled water for air conditioning. Seventy-five percent of MCCo's power comes from Ohio-mined coal, and 25 percent is supplemented with natural gas and power purchased from the grid.

At 40,000 tons of coal a year, the plant is responsible for around 114,400 tons of CO2 emissions alone per year (estimate based on EIA formula for complete combustion of 78% carbon content coal). It's a relatively small operation, but lately questions have surfaced: How much longer can a modern healthcare campus and a university that lays claim to being one of the best in the world tolerate having a dirty coal plant in its midst?

A partial answer: Not much longer.

MCCo has submitted its request for a renewal of its permit, and has plans to expand with designs to build a new plant in nearby East Cleveland, where 81.5% of the population are African-American, 28.9% live below the poverty level. Even if a new coal-fired plant is arguably "cleaner" than the old plant, coal makes for a dirty and unhealthy neighbor, and despite vastly improved emissions technology, new coal plants have no current commercially viable CO2 capture or storage ability.

What has plenty of observers nervous is the uncertainty around just how far the thinking has evolved around energy when it meets with the city's largest growth area. Case, which signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment in July 2008, officially kicked off a campus wide plan for climate action this week. Meanwhile, locals have engaged environmental group Sierra Club and the Campuses Beyond Coal initiative to convince leaders to follow their better angels, while remaining firm about the outcome.

"The Medical Center Company needs to move beyond coal, and set a specific time to do that," insists Sierra Club's Mattie Reitman, who says he had a conversation with MCCo president Michael Heise about doing so.

"(Heise) has said specifically they are looking at natural gas and biomass going forward, and cogeneration would definitely be part of that."

Rumors have been swirling for months, though, and they go something like this: MCCo may be considering other sources of power, but its final decision will be made on projections of what is the cheapest.

That actually bodes well for MCCo to move away from coal, says Reitman, who works on coal issues for Sierra Club around the state. "Cost is an argument against coal. We're seeing construction overruns that are 100 times and up, and federal legislation on coal to increase regulations on coal ash. We have mercury regulations here in Ohio, and some day federal legislation on carbon."

For Case and University Hospital, insisting that the plant find a cleaner source of power is an opportunity to prove that they are leaders around sustainability.

"Case wants to be a regional leader in sustainability," Reitman says. "Oberlin also has a coal plant on the campus. They don't know what to do with it. They're looking at power from landfill gas or biomass. The options that people are looking at, none of those are brilliant or clean or easy. Case will be setting a precedent here as a research institution and a campus and UH as a medical campus will set a precedent."

A concern of Reitman's is finding a clear definition of "biomass." In some recent cases, it has meant using virgin trees, while other times it can mean burning trash, both of which have environmental impacts.

Reitman and volunteers have been going door to door in East Cleveland, Little Italy, Fairfax and in University Circle trying to generate excitement about a hearing and an opportunity to comment about the company's plans on August 10 from 4:30 to 6:30 at the MLK Branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

Reitman and others are also trying to reach Bob Brown, Treasurer of Case and recently appointed board chair of the Medical Company (and Sherrod Brown's brother).

"We want him to hold a public forum that brings people in who are going to be impacted one way or another. We would love to have students, residents and professors there and excited about it."

"The best thing could be they announce a choice that has a better impact on public health, heals the disconnects with the surrounding community, and shows off Case as a leader and makes progress with UCI's outreach to partner organizations to establish sustainability initiatives in the Circle."

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