After the University announced in May a proposal from Duke Energy to build a new natural gas facility on campus, some students and faculty members have raised concerns about the proposed plant’s impact and a lack of transparency surrounding the initial stages of the facility's planning.

The $55 million, 21-megawatt combined heat and power plant would be owned and operated by Duke Energy Carolinas, a subsidiary of Duke Energy. According to the May announcement, the facility would be capable of reducing the University’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 25 percent. In addition to producing electricity, the combined heat and power facility would use waste heat to produce thermal energy and steam, which would be sold back to the University.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email that the University does not yet have a contract with Duke Energy, but that if the plant is approved by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, Duke could negotiate a contract and the plant would take approximately 18 months to build. The plant would be built to the east of the Blue Zone parking lot, near the existing Duke Energy substation and the University Chilled Water Plant, Schoenfeld confirmed.

Potential impact

Executive Vice President Tallman Trask told Indy Week recently that the primary reason the University pursued the plan for this facility was the “continuity of electricity” it would provide the Duke University Hospital, noting that solar power is not as reliable of a power source.

“We run the largest hospital in the Carolinas, and it's dependent on electricity sent here from very long distances, and the grid can fail,” he told Indy Week. “We can't afford to let the hospital lose power, and this is an economic way of guaranteeing the availability of power for the hospital and research labs.”

By capturing the steam driving a turbine and using it for heat, a combined heat and power plant can reach higher efficiency than either a plant that just creates heat or steam, or a plant that just generates electricity, explained Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Schoenfeld wrote that the new facility would thus reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned at University steam plants, and would overall reduce Duke’s carbon dioxide footprint by 13 percent.

However, the Duke Climate Coalition, a student-led group, has recently voiced concerns about the proposed plant. A petition by the DCC to stop the plant has gathered almost 500 student signatures as of last week, noted sophomore Claire Wang, president of the DCC.

"Duke claims the plant is going to be cleaner than the existing energy," Wang said. "The challenge is that the actual methodology behind this figure has not been released. Our best guess is these emission reductions... won’t take into account the power plant itself."

Wang also noted that further details of the proposed plant and what renewable energy alternatives were considered have not been released.

"If Duke were to say it’s the best it can do at this point, it’s missing the point," she added. "We want Duke University to be the climate leader that it’s always claimed to be. The proposal that currently stands flies in the face of that."

The University's Climate Action Plan, which commits to the University to achieving carbon neutrality by 2024, was developed in 2009 by the Campus Sustainability Committee, which is tasked with guiding sustainability policies on campus and is made up of students, faculty members and administrators appointed by President Richard Brodhead. The committee last year was co-chaired by Trask and Profeta. 

Profeta noted the possibility of the proposed facility converting to use of biogas instead of natural gas in the future 

"The [Climate Action Plan] was written to say that we should build that natural gas infrastructure but change from natural gas to biogas," Profeta explained. "As long as we’re on a path to get away from fossil fuels, it’s not inconsistent with the plan."

Schoenfeld also noted that the plant does not prevent Duke from deploying other renewable energy sources in the future, and that the proposed 35-year agreement with Duke Energy was not set in stone. 

“While a 35-year term is typical in the utility industry because it lines up with the expected life of power generation equipment, the University will ensure it has options to exit the agreement should better options become available to improve the reliability of electric systems, or more sustainable sources of energy become available at the scale and cost that meet the campus needs," Schoenfeld wrote.

Transparency

Randy Wheeless, communications manager for Duke Energy, told The Chronicle in May that Duke Energy had been discussing this project with the University for approximately a year.

"Duke University is a very important customer—we've been talking to them a long time," he noted. "There are a lot of complexities that have to be worked out but we think we’ve arrived at a very good project, that’ll be good for Duke Energy but also for the University as well."

Profeta said that he believed that the initial planning from the University's side had been handled mostly by the Executive Vice President’s office and Facilities and Management.

Wang, however, noted that the DCC, which had been in meetings with Trask and Facilities and Management over the course of the past year, and the Campus Sustainability Committee were not informed about the plan for the facility until it was announced in May.

Trask could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

“While there had been preliminary work that was done under a non-disclosure agreement because other parties were involved, the Board of Trustees, the Campus Sustainability Committee and student groups were advised that a potential project was being discussed,” Schoenfeld wrote.

Profeta, who is also co-chair of the Campus Sustainability Committee, noted that the committee was never consulted last year on the proposal. Rather, he said, there may have been a passing reference to a plan being in the works.

"The University is supposed to be a pretty egalitarian place, with faculty council, student council and others having input on decisions like this, and that didn't happen here," Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences in the Nicholas School of the Environment, told Indy Week recently.

"We’ve received no information about the University’s decision making process. It’s basically, we just have to take their word for it, but we have no measure of validity of their claims," Wang added.

Profeta explained that since the proposal was announced, he has been working with Nicholas School of the Environment faculty and the Duke Energy Initiative to try and establish a forum larger than just the Campus Sustainability Committee to foster open dialogue on campus about the proposal.

“I always think in our community we should be as open communicators as we can," he said. "I think we should be trying to foster greater communication amongst all the Duke community and the staff."