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Year in review

It has been a little more than one year since the Board of Trustees approved the University’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) at their October 2009 meeting. Since then, it’s been a busy year for the environment, both on and off campus.

Nationally, the spotlight swung to the Gulf of Mexico in late April, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and BP’s Macondo well blew-out, starting a gushing torrent of oil that would not be stemmed for three months. Impacts from the spill are still being felt in the region’s economy and environment, as well as in Washington, D.C. Veteran of the Hill and Director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Tim Profeta explained that the disaster, which should have provided the perfect impetus for action on the comprehensive climate legislation set for debate in the Senate, instead presented as “a perfect mismatch in the legislative vehicle with the situation that was creating the political window [for action].” The climate bill had promised to expand offshore drilling.

While the national carbon approach may be on hold, instead shifting to a debate on more specific policy approaches for the energy and transportation sectors, California’s AB 32, a state based approach to a cap-and-trade system on carbon, survived a ballot referendum and will take effect in the coming year.

Duke is not isolated from this national dialogue. In fact, it is quite the opposite in terms of both academic pursuits and the subsequent contributions to policy development.

But more important to the discussion at hand is the clearly stated “major assumption” in the CAP, that a) “carbon legislation will be in place by 2012” and b) “there will be a cost associated with ‘doing nothing.’” At this point, neither is clearly in the cards for the short term.

Regardless, this uncertainty in the regulatory environment has not stopped Duke from taking action, making investments and setting the groundwork for future change.

The largest capital investment to date, and most significant in producing immediate carbon based emissions reductions, was the renovation, restoration and retrofit of the East Campus Steam Plant to run solely on natural gas. The new plant now provides the base load for the campus, thereby reducing significantly, as much as 75 percent, the amount of coal burned by the now auxiliary West Campus plant. Coal emits more green house gas (GHG) per equivalent measure when compared to natural gas.

Due to the relatively immature regional infrastructure for natural gas, and an uncertain long-term supply and price point (compared with clear regional sourcing and historically low cost of coal), it is as yet unclear how this commitment wall play out economically, especially without a price on carbon emissions. The next move on the fuel mix portfolio, the options for the renovation and conversion of the West Campus Steam Plant, is heating up the debate on campus.

Major accomplishments tail off, but in addition to the steam plant conversion, the Facilities Management Department is in the middle of tackling existing buildings with a temperature and scheduling policy which has seen immediate energy and thereby monetary savings. Just one front in a multi-pronged approach to addressing existing buildings, success will be more likely as long as everyone doesn’t turn around and plug a space heater in under their desk.

All other sectors covered in the CAP (transportation, education, offsets and communications) have seen small real change in emissions reductions (if measurable at all) but have been busy laying the ground work for future policy and social changes that are projected to have a significant impact in the future.

Take, for instance, efforts to curb emissions relating to transportation. The CAP proposes “an aggressive transportation demand management (TDM) strategy,” under which falls programming like a beefed up commuter incentive program to encourage alterative transportation and carpooling alternatives, increased access to the regional bus network and improved biking infrastructure. To coordinate and promote the effort, a new TDM coordinator was hired in September.

Hardest to quantify and judge quantitatively are the social changes. A peek at the Sustainability website will reveal an office that is growing and active. A flower compared to the bud of years past with growing student, faculty and staff participation from all corners of campus. Take, for instance, Food Week, a student organized week of food awareness activities and lectures. The event was sponsored by a grant from the Green Grant Fund. And a student leader sustainability summit has been held the past two semesters with plans to continue to draw student leaders together in the future to foster collaboration and communication across campus. A campus primed for change may just be more accepting of the climate neutral future the CAP envisions.

This is the end of year one. It’s been a busy year, but there are still 14 more years until the 2024 target date for climate neutrality. In academic terms, Duke is but a mere second grader in this long journey. That’s a long way from college exams, but there is certainly wisdom in laying a strong foundation in the fundamentals. We’re off to a good start, but there is still so much left to be done.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fourth-year graduate student in mechanical engineering. This is her final column of the semester.

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