The oldest coal-fired boiler on the University of Kentucky campus was built in 1977 and wouldn't meet the "much stricter" pollution standards if it were being installed today, school officials acknowledged during a Thursday tour of the heating plant.
In response to questions about replacing the boiler with one that uses renewable energy, Bob Wiseman, UK's vice president for facilities management, pointed to a set of prepared questions and answers.
One of them said that burning a mix of coal and natural gas would continue "at the present time and for the foreseeable future."
It also said the current mix "is an important issue in the overall affordability of a UK education."
Never miss a local story.
The answer did not sit well with some of the 20 people who took part in the tour.
"He's not taking into account the health implications of burning coal," said Howard Myers, a member of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice that last fall helped organize a panel discussion about the future of coal on the campus.
Scientific research, including a recent report prepared by the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, says that mining, cleaning and burning coal, and dealing with the resulting ash have led to Kentucky having the highest total mortality rate in the country.
It was the third year that UK has offered tours of the area where it burns coal and natural gas to create steam heat in the winter and hot water year-round.
This year, the tour included Vice Mayor Jim Gray and former Mayor Teresa Isaac. Mayor Jim Newberry was invited but had other commitments.
Also on the tour were members of a new group, UK Beyond Coal, organized by the Sierra Club.
Kyle Beck, a junior majoring in business, said the group's goal is to persuade the university to stop burning coal by 2015 "or as soon as possible."
Beck agreed it is cheaper for UK to burn coal now instead of switching to renewable fuels. But that will change as regulations tighten and the cost of using coal escalates, he said.
"It's better to invest in clean energy," he said.
Compared to the coal-fired plants that generate more than 90 percent of the state's electricity, UK's boilers are small.
Wiseman said that two-thirds of the school's carbon footprint comes from the electricity it buys from Kentucky Utilities.
To reduce that footprint, the school is in the early stages of a $25 million energy savings performance contract that could reduce the use of electricity by 15 percent. That would mean a significant reduction in a light bill that is $50 million a year, Wiseman said.
While he expects the school to continue using coal for heating and hot water, Wiseman said newer boilers mostly burn natural gas, which is more expensive but produces less pollution.
Arne Bathke, a statistics professor who was on Thursday's tour, encouraged Wiseman to talk to his counterpart at Ball State University in Indiana, which is exploring using geothermal energy for heat.
Wiseman said he would, but added "What is the price tag? It's huge."