On October 20, Michigan State University (MSU) arrested three students who participated in a clean energy protest in the president’s office. Four other students sat outside of the president’s office with blue surgical masks while others rallied in front of the administration building. These students, members of the university’s Greenpeace chapter, are part of a nationwide movement initiated by the non-governmental organization. They demanded the shut-down of the on-campus coal power plant, citing the environmental and health concerns over the largest on-campus coal plant in the country with over 200,000 tons of coal burned each year.
MSU Greenpeace has tried for two years to reduce the university’s reliance on fossil fuels, by marching, petitioning, and bringing energy experts to meet with plant engineers. However, they felt the university has yet to take serious steps and demanded a transition to clean energy with an aggressive time-line. Despite several warnings before the arrest, three students decided to show their dedication to the cause by refusing to leave the president’s office after its closing time.
The protests reflect the ardor of the students in environmental activism, especially prominent today with rising concerns of global climate change. “What is happening now is very much something that we should be mad about. Our future is being destroyed … And I feel like there are a lot of ways that anger can be constructively used," said Adam Liter, one of the students arrested for the sit-in protest. Liter expressed his desire to “go to a university that is 100% clean and doesn’t have any negative impacts when it comes to the environment and … human health."
Liter’s counterparts at University of California, Davis, had the opportunity to see this vision realized as the university inaugurated the first phase of the nation’s largest planned zero net energy community on its campus last week. By combining on-site power generation using renewable sources with aggressive energy efficiency measures, UC Davis West Village promises to generate as much energy each year as it consumes. Upon completion, the 130-acre development will support eco-friendly lifestyles for about 3,000 students, staff, faculty and the neighboring community.
The $280 million project traces its roots to years of bottom-up grassroots efforts by students and top-down support from the administration, the state, and the federal government. Starting in 2002, a coalition of UC students successfully pushed the Board of Regents for state-wide university sustainability standards. Over the years, collaboration among the students, faculty, administration, and the Board grew as the University of California became a national leader in sustainability initiatives. This led to the expansion of UC Davis’ renowned faculty and research centers in the field, which in turn attracted $7.5 million in federal and state grants for energy research for the West Village project. The development also highlights the importance of public-private partnerships in bringing technology to market, demonstrating the feasibility of large-scale sustainable housing with return for its private investors.
The students at MSU share the determination and perseverance of the UC students and should not underestimate the importance of their efforts. However, will they need a different set of approaches to align the interests of the students, administration, the public, and the private sector under different political and economic conditions? What actions besides protests can the students realistically take to push for change?
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