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To build or not to build: Forum debates merits of potential Duke Energy power plant on campus

<p>A proposed Duke Energy power plant on campus has been criticized for possible adverse effects on North Carolina communities.&nbsp;</p>

A proposed Duke Energy power plant on campus has been criticized for possible adverse effects on North Carolina communities. 

A Tuesday forum addressed concerns about a proposed University plan to allow Duke Energy to build a combined heat and power plant on campus. 

Supporters of the idea argued that building a CHP plant on campus will reduce emissions as well as the University's energy bill—strengthening Duke's ability to generate power during a regional power outage. However, concerns have been raised about the plant’s broader environmental impact on the North Carolina community. 

“We all want to provide for the University’s needs while producing as little greenhouse gases as possible,” said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

By capturing the steam driving a turbine and using it for heat, a CHP plant is designed to be more efficient than plants that just create heat or steam and plants that just generate electricity. The purpose of the forum—sponsored by the Energy Initiative, the Nicholas School and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions—was to consider whether building an on-campus CHP would actually serve Duke's interests.

“Having a regional power outage would be catastrophic to the campus," said Russell Thompson, director of utility and engineering services. "We don’t have backup generation for every building on campus. Only the hospital is 100 percent and they would be relying on diesel generators.”

Although Duke hospitals keep four days worth of fuel on hand for diesel generators, they must send for a new shipment when supply runs out, Thompson explained. But this might not be possible in the aftermath of a severe natural disaster, which typically causes long-term regional power outages. 

Based on case studies of prior natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, Thompson concluded that such power outages could last as long as seven days—a timeframe that the hospital is not currently equipped to handle. 

Natural gas pipelines, he explained, run deep underground and are not usually affected by severe weather conditions. Construction of the CHP plant would thus increase Duke’s ability to supply power to its various facilities in the face of a natural disaster. 

Others suggested that even in the absence of such emergency conditions, the CHP plant could prove useful to the University.

“A primary advantage of this project would be that compared to baseline situations, I think we’re looking at about $2 million a year in cost savings,” said Ted Herman, co-president of the Nicholas School’s Business and Environment Club. 

Tuition rates might be favorably affected by such reductions in its overhead cost, said Herman, who is also pursuing master's degrees in business and environmental management. 

Duke Energy submitted its proposal to the North Carolina Utilities Commission last week and is awaiting government permission to go ahead with the plan. If approved, the plant would be built to the east of the Blue Zone parking lot, confirmed Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, in a prior article. 

CHP planning document published by the University argues that greenhouse gas emission rates would fall by 18 percent if the plant is installed. 

However, two Nicholas School professors recently published a guest column in The Chronicle, criticizing some of the planning document's conclusions. The figure has also been contested by local environmental justice non-profit NC WARN. Jim Warren, the group's executive director, recently sent an email to President Richard Brodhead questioning the plant’s ability to reduce emissions.

"The amount of natural gas burned on campus—and associated greenhouse gas emissions—would increase by 61 percent over current practice," Warren wrote in an email. 

Some members of the student body oppose construction of the CHP plant. 

Sophomore Claire Wang, president of the Duke Climate Coalition, said that more than 800 students have signed a petition against the construction of this CHP plant. Doubt about the plant's potential impact on greenhouse emissions is one of the organization's concerns.

Wang also raised the issue of economic injustice, noting that the costs of building the plant will be passed on to the general North Carolina population, and those people will not benefit from its construction.

“The plant cost is $60 million total,” she said. “$55 million of that is funded by Duke Energy which pays for its projects by charging rate payers who are just people in the community. So ultimately the bulk of this plant is being paid for by North Carolinians who are not at all affected by what Duke will be benefiting from.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that a quote formerly attributed to Dean Urban was actually made by Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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