The Charter Street Heating Plant has recently come under fire from environmentalists who want the state Department of Natural Resources to deny its application for a 5-year permit renewal. The DNR has preliminarily approved its application and recently invited citizens and activist groups to weigh in on the future of the plant.
The coal-powered facility opened in 1958 and produces emissions believed to contribute to global warming. The plant also provides for 80 percent of the University of Wisconsin's steam heating needs, however.
While we agree that coal is an outdated power source and lament the impact of the facility's black smoke on our local ecosystem, the Charter Street Heating Plant's permit should be renewed. The plants owners — the university and the Wisconsin Department of Administration — realize that implementing a new power source to heat UW is fiscally and physically infeasible at the moment. Furthermore, the import of more "green" energy would be an overwhelming challenge thanks to requirements for wind turbines and hydroelectricity and the space and sunlight necessary for a solar facility.
Though the Charter Street Heating Plant deserves a renewal, UW should spend the next five years searching for innovative, cost effective ways to make a transition to cleaner energy. Critics of the plant are correct to note the irony of a campus bedecked in "We Conserve" signs yet reliant on coal power. Unfortunately, nuclear power is a political nonstarter and marginally cleaner oil power facilities are subject to market fluctuations.
Thus, it seems as if we are resigned to using coal power to fill UW's steam tunnels for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, we applaud UW's proactive stance on this issue as it conducts a study commissioned by the Department of Administration exploring alternative energy options and ways to increase the efficiency of the Charter Street Heating Plant.
Hopefully, after five years, UW's innovation will render the plant obsolete and be an example to communities around the nation searching for a way to end our over-dependence on fossil fuels.