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Environmental transparency: Is Duke ready to be a climate leader?

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Since Duke University’s proposed natural gas combined heat and power (CHP) plant was announced this May, the Duke administration has responded to concerns about the plant by repeating claims that the plant would improve campus reliability and could be transitioned to biogas in the future. However, the administration has yet to address the criticisms from students, faculty, and environmental organizations about these very issues. In his letter last week, President Brodhead elaborated on the purported benefits of Duke’s proposed gas plant project; however, he failed to mention several important facts that must be considered before Duke decides to follow through with this project.

President Brodhead emphasizes the importance of having reliable power for Duke’s critical facilities and claims the CHP plant will be able to provide such backup power in the event of an outage. What he doesn’t mention is that there have been exceedingly few instances in which the university has lost power in the past several decades. The university already has 100% backup generation for the hospital using diesel generators, as is required by state policy. Just this week, the university confirmed that it “currently has adequate capacity for all its heat and power needs.” If the university wants to further enhance its reliability, there are many alternative options available for the university to achieve reliable power – at a much lower cost to the environment. According to analyses by the Natural Resources Defense Council, this gas plant would produce “more than 40 times the carbon emissions of the equivalent back-up diesel generation” over the plant’s lifetime. Upgrading the existing emergency generation fleet can more than meet reliability needs. Duke can also explore battery or fuel cell technologies, combined with renewables, to pioneer novel technological approaches.

Brodhead also suggests that the plant can be transitioned to biogas in the future, but this possibility is far from certain. Biogas technologies still have not overcome serious obstacles for the fuel to be commercially available. For five years, Duke Energy has been unable to meet legislative mandates to produce 0.07 percent of its total electricity sales (about 10 megawatts) from biogas. The idea that Duke could directly fuel this 21 megawatt plant with biogas is simply a pipe dream. Additionally, as local advocacy group NC WARN notes, the swine farms that produce biogas have serious environmental justice concerns, as these farms pollute the areas around them, which are typically occupied by lower income populations and people of color. Betting on the improvements of bio-gas technologies does not add any justification for the creation of this CHP plant.

Finally, CHP integration has not “always been a component of the university’s Climate Action Plan,” as President Brodhead claims. In fact, the Climate Action Plan (CAP) explicitly states that “These CHP systems are not included in the CAP at this time” and acknowledges that “there will likely be a point in time when it becomes counter-productive for the university to produce electricity using natural gas.”

While it is heartening to see the university begin the “open and transparent process” that Brodhead pledges to facilitate, if Duke truly wants to be a leader in climate action, we need to make sure that the rationale for any new project that impacts our emissions is actually based in fact and incorporates new information, rather than simply recycling outdated, disproven claims. Only then can Duke truly and responsibly achieve the carbon-neutrality goals of the Climate Action Plan.

Mark Steelman is a Pratt sophomore.