Illinois is known for its abundant coal deposits, and has long depended on the coal industry for both jobs and power. So coming out in favor of a cleaner and more cost-effective source of energy is a big statement, but it’s one that Eastern Illinois University (EIU) is willing to make.

The school recently announced that it will break ground on its new Center for Clean Energy Research and Education Facility this fall. Although it will take approximately one year to build, EIU hopes the 4,300-square-foot facility will be a catalyst for renewable energy development in the state.

“There are some things that you really need to be able to do in order to conduct renewable energy research, and we don’t really have a space right now that works well for that kind of project,” said Bob Chesnut, director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at EIU. “I think [the new facility is] a way of bringing Eastern’s capabilities in renewable energy to the schools. It gives the schools a single place to visit,” Chesnut said.

But altruism isn’t the only motivation driving the Center. EIU has been struggling to work out a solution for its own rapidly failing coal steam plant. That facility, which opened in 1928, was a primarily coal-burning operation; two of its four boilers burned coal, while the backup boilers burned natural gas and fuel oil. With a replacement absolutely necessary to the future of the university and no financial support available from the state or federal government, it became obvious that EIU would have to come up with its own solution. In 2010, the school celebrated the opening of its new biomass-burning facility, a decision that was at least $20 million cheaper than replacing the coal-burning steam plant.

Now, EIU hopes the expansion of its renewable energy research capacity will help test blends of different biomass materials, and possibly develop commercially viable options for itself and the industry.

Although there’s clearly some self-interest involved, construction of the Center holds potential for much-needed economic development in the surrounding community as well. According to Chesnut, start-up businesses specializing in renewable energy can have a home there and hopefully help add jobs to the Coles County area.

Photo credit: Eastern Illinois University