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Energy & Environment

Students Pressure UMD Administration to Decarbonize Faster

The University of Maryland’s power plant emits around 125,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

University of Maryland students are pressuring the college administration to expedite a planned conversion of the campus’ fossil-fuel burning power plant.

University administrators have already committed to converting the plant, which is fueled by natural gas, in either 2035 or 2050 — and on Earth Day last year committed to making the College Park campus carbon-neutral by 2025. But some students don’t believe that’s a fast enough commitment to zero carbon emissions.

“University of Maryland is supposed to be a climate ambassador, but it’s really a contradiction when we’re powered by a fossil fuel power plant,” said Marilyn Yang, a College Park junior who is a member of the Student Government Association’s Sustainability Committee, and a leading organizer of the student effort.

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On Friday afternoon, students opposed to the power plant gathered in front of McKeldin Library to collect petition signatures calling for swift action to convert the plant — and to give students more of a say on the planned timetable. They were initially hoping to have a mass rally, similar to one last fall, when hundreds of students came out to oppose a housing development proposal near campus, which has since been put on hold.

“But it’s finals week, it’s chill,” said Yang, who argued there was utility in gathering even if there wasn’t a mass demonstration.

“A lot of people don’t even know that this process is around,” she said. “Some students don’t even know that the power plant is there.”

The university is in the midst of a long-term campaign that’s been branded NextGen Energy. It’s designed to reduce carbon emissions throughout the sprawling College Park campus.

A key aspect of the project is retrofitting the power plant, which provides heating and cooling to more than 250 buildings on the campus. The university is seeking to work with a private company to update the plant and has asked potential contractors to make bids to retrofit the plant either by 2035 or by 2050, and will select a bidder in the next several months.

“Students are rallying for something that the institution is fully committed to, and has been for some time,” the university administration said in a statement provided to Maryland Matters. “One of the president’s very first announcements was to commit this university to carbon neutrality by 2025. This was an accelerated timeline, and the president set the agenda. This will be accomplished through a mix of infrastructure improvement, electric vehicle purchases, and targeted investments in sustainability which will likely include some verified carbon offsets at least in the near term.”

Marilyn Yang (at right of table) and other student climate activists collect petition signatures seeking to expedite the conversion of the University of Maryland’s power plant. Photo by Josh Kurtz.

The student activists said they appreciated that the university is seeking to achieve carbon neutrality in just a few years. But Jan-Michael Archer, a Ph.D. student in environmental health and head of the campus chapter of 17 For Peace and Justice, a campus and community environmental justice group, noted that paying carbon offsets doesn’t help the local community economically or environmentally.

“Although that was a good first step, it relies on the fact that we have to rely on carbon offsets paid elsewhere,” he said.

“We should know where the carbon offsets are going so we know if they’re directly benefiting the community,” Yang said.

Students said they are mindful that the College Park campus is in Prince George’s County, a majority-Black jurisdiction that is home to several polluting power plants. The university plant, along Baltimore Avenue across the road from the main section of campus, converts the gas that’s burned at the plant to heat and cool buildings across campus. It emits about 125,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That argues for urgency to move the plant away from fossil fuels, the students said.

“Prince George’s County is disproportionally affected by environmental burdens,” Yang said.

The university has assembled an advisory committee made up mostly of school administrators to help guide the NextGen process. But there’s only one student on it, and he feels disenfranchised. Part of the students’ petition campaign is to put at least one more student on the advisory panel.

Last year, students and community leaders joined forces to pressure campus officials to reject a development plan on wooded land near campus that would have provided needed graduate school housing as well as private residential units. Last fall, the university announced it was pausing the project, which remains dormant at the moment.

Archer said he and other student climate activists see the power plant debate and the now-stalled development proposal as part of a bigger picture.

“When you’re trying to cut down forests and continuing polluting, it’s a race to the bottom,” he said.