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A student environmental group has launched a campaign against what it calls the University of Otago's "dirty little secret".
The environmental group Generation Zero says the burning of low grade and dirty lignite coal to partly power the university's Dunedin campus has to stop. It is calling on students to sign a petition pushing for a shift to more sustainable fuels.
The university has a contract with Energy for Industry, a wholly owned subsidiary of Meridian Energy, to supply energy for heating from the Dunedin Energy Centre boiler house, which uses lignite coal. The centre also supplies energy to Cadbury and Dunedin Hospital.
Generation Zero member Tarsh Turner told about 70 students at the launch of the campaign on campus last week that in order to address climate change New Zealand needed to shift away from burning coal and lignite and that putting pressure on the university was one way students could make a difference.
"We can't think seriously about climate change without addressing the use of ... [lignite] in our city," Ms Turner said.
Generation Zero hoped to get 2000 signatures on a petition calling for an end to the university's reliance on lignite.
Fellow Generation Zero member Letisha Nicholas said the university should demand a shift to wood chip burning boilers when its contract with Energy for Industry ran out.
Otago University sustainability co-ordinator Hilary Phipps said the university was legally bound by its contract with Dunedin Energy Centre for "a few more years" and was not in a position to discuss the specifics of future contracts.
The university was committed to moving towards a more sustainable campus and since 2008 had installed 10 woodchip and wood pellet boilers, including one servicing the College of Education, which was due to become operational very soon, Ms Phipps said.
It was also important to remember that coal was one of many energy sources the university used for heating and lighting on campus, she said.
Energy for Industry industrial energy solutions general manager Stephen Jones said his company supported using renewable and cleaner energy sources. The company had already converted one of the boilers at the Dunedin Energy Centre to burn wood chips, which could power up to 25% of the centre.
The company "would love" to use only wood chips at the centre, but the cost, which was nearly double that of lignite, was prohibitive.