A group of University of Kentucky students and Lexington residents has asked the UK Board of Trustees to consider getting rid of two coal-fired boilers that provide heat to much of campus.
Student Patrick Johnson asked the board to conduct a feasibility study on moving UK toward geothermal and solar energy, two sustainable forms of energy that don't pollute the atmosphere.
He cited Ball State University, which is in the process of switching from four coal-fired boilers to geothermal units, which use the earth's natural temperatures to heat and cool buildings. Ball State is estimating it will save $2 million a year after paying $65 million to $70 million to build the system.
"More money saved on energy production means that more money can be spent moving the university toward its academic goals," Johnson said.
UK spends about $30 million a year on energy costs.
According to UK officials, about 68 percent of campus heat is produced by burning coal and 32 percent from natural gas. On average, UK spends $3.6 million a year for natural gas and $3.7 million for coal.
The coal boilers have to meet state pollution requirements, said Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president of operations .
However, pollution from those coal boilers contributed to a recent report by the Brookings Institution, which found that Lexington had the largest carbon footprint per person of the 100 cities studied.
But as UK looks at major costs for new buildings, it appears doubtful the school will build a new heating system.
"For the foreseeable future, I continue to see a combination of coal and natural gas, primarily driven by cost," Wiseman said.
After the group addressed the Board of Trustees' finance committee, about 15 people held a rally outside the UK Student Center.
One of the protesters was Rose Garden, a Sierra Club member who lives near UK.
"This should have been stopped years and year ago," she said. "We have enough information to know this is completely damaging."
Lauren McGrath, another Sierra Club member who is helping Johnson, said more and more UK students have gotten interested in the issue, partly because of UK's involvement with the coal industry. For example, coal executives are funding the new Wildcat Coal Lodge for basketball players, and the Friends of Coal group sponsored the UK-University of Louisville football game earlier this year.
"UK students are having a real response to the close relationship," McGrath said.