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How Eastern Began Using Wind Energy: This student-led initiative made Eastern the greenest college in the U.S.

You might remember from the last issue of the Waltonian that Eastern claims to have been “the first college in PA to power a campus on 100% wind energy.” So says our “Green Energy Program Postcard” which you can find attached to the “Green Energy Program” page on Eastern’s website. As it turns out, this claim is true. Here’s part of the story of how it began.

When I asked student development for information on this, I was informed that former VP of Student Development, Bettie Ann Brigham, was the most informed person on the subject and had been involved in the program early on. However, due to Brigham’s controversial departure in 2017, an event current juniors and seniors might remember, it is more difficult to piece together the origin story of Eastern’s use of wind energy.

However, after some digging, I was given a 46 page document of student and local news articles from around the U.S. which commented on Eastern’s use of wind power. This wealth of documentation is impressive and gives a sense of the widespread impact Eastern’s green initiatives had at the time. Here’s what I’ve pieced together.

In 2002 there was a club at Eastern called the Sustainable Peace Initiative which proposed the idea of buying wind energy. Initially, by going dorm room to dorm room, they raised $3,000 in order to buy wind power for 3% of Eastern’s usage for the 2002-2003 school year. This student-led initiative worked with student government and administration and went on to convince 1,047 out of 1,500 full-time undergraduate students to voluntarily add $22 to their student bills in order to purchase 37% of Eastern’s power from wind sources for 2003-2004. This was a higher percentage than any other U.S. college or university at the time. The goal was to reach 100% wind power within three years.

An environmental science major at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is quoted as saying “I’m jealous of Eastern buying 37%.” There are more quotes like this, from a variety of sources, including administrators and civil servants. This one I take to be representative of the attitude people and institutions around the U.S. had towards Eastern’s initiative. They were impressed. But it also shows the considerable exposure this initiative received. I imagine there are very few Chapel Hill students today who have ever heard of Eastern. But at that time Eastern was setting the pace, and other institutions knew it.

The students who led this initiative wanted to make participation in the Green Energy Program mandatory, an unavoidable feature of the student bill. But President of Eastern David Black tempered their zeal and made it possible for students to opt out of the program, an option still available today. Black is quoted as saying, “We all want the same thing – for every student to participate in the fee. But we just don’t force goodness; we think everybody should be good.”

This tone of moral concern resonates with other characters from these articles. The Student Government President at the time, Robin Weinstein, claimed the decision to pursue green energy was “centered around the mission of Eastern University and its commitment to environmental justice.” Sherrie Steiner, then a sociology professor at Eastern who helped start the initiative, was disappointed that President Black made participation optional. But she too felt that “this whole thing was really about hope, hope for the future.”

Another document, which appears to be a promotional handout, the kind you might see on the bulletin boards around Eastern, says that “This campus is projected to use 15 1/2 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity this year, all of that energy will be powered by clean, renewable wind.” There’s no date, but the name at the bottom is Bettie Ann Brigham. Another document confirms that we reached 100% wind power in 2006.

Today, the Green Fee on our student bills still goes to Community Energy to purchase wind power.
Sources: Special thanks to Sally Kapner in Student Development for all the helpful information and documents.

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