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Will Duke twice become a leader in renewable energy?

An Energy Program Statement that outlines Duke University’s future energy plans for campus heating is rapidly heading for approval at the University’s Board of Trustees meeting. The statement recommends near 100 percent reliance on natural gas for University heating needs. Guided by the Campus Sustainability Committee and written by the Facilities Management Department, the statement will commit the University to almost wholly heat with fossil natural gas and develop no significant renewable thermal energy systems in the foreseeable future.

Energy planning is highly complex and Duke is engaged in a remarkably open process. Even still, while the Energy Statement rightly emphasizes that natural gas is cleaner burning than coal, the statement does not mention that natural gas is a fossil fuel, is not renewable and has important environmental costs. To evaluate the Energy Statement, we ask the University Trustees to use the Duke University Sustainability Pledge, a pledge originated by campus leadership and one that is now signed by over 6,000 members of the Duke community. The pledge states simply that as individuals, we will consider the environmental, social and economic impact of our actions.

Three consequences of the Energy Program Statement seem significant.

1. Leadership. Duke stands poised to become a university leader in renewable and sustainable energy development. The University has participated with other colleges and worked to improve its efficiency of energy use. The Duke Endowment has supported and encouraged the University to develop a renewable energy portfolio. The Facilities Management Department has taken significant steps to pulling the campus back from coal and to make improvements to Duke’s district thermal energy system. Students, faculty and staff have worked hard with FMD on a series of Campus Sustainability Initiatives to promote alternative transportation, improve energy efficiency in existing buildings and plan future energy use. One of the newest and fastest-growing educational programs in the University is the graduate-level Energy and Environment program, a Nicholas School program that has grown to nearly 100 students in only a few years. Many more students in Fuqua, Pratt, Law, Sanford and various departments in Arts and Sciences have keen interests and expertise in energy issues. These University developments stand in contrast with the Energy Program Statement which will make the University nearly 100 percent reliant on fossil natural gas for heating for the foreseeable future. At a time when government agencies, industries and many other institutions are hesitating in their support for renewable energies, Duke should lead by systematically exploring and potentially expanding its production of renewable and sustainable thermal energy.

2. Duke and Durham. The decision to increase natural gas on campus means that the University will miss opportunities to work with and benefit the city of Durham. For example, a survey released this summer indicates that the city generates at least 20,000 to 35,000 tons of waste-wood per year, much of which is landfilled at not a small cost to the community. Durham’s Parks and Recreation Department, currently squeezed by the city’s financial crisis, continues to pay to landfill the city’s hazardous dead and dying trees, simply because the Durham community does not value clean waste wood. The recent waste-wood survey indicates that the energy and financial value of this biomass is substantial and needs estimation. Advanced wood-energy facilities make contributions to many communities throughout Europe, and in American cities like St. Paul, Minn., and towns like Burlington, Vt. Middlebury College, Colgate University and the University of South Carolina all have constructed biomass energy facilities that generate clean thermal energy with high efficiency. While start-up capital costs are higher than those for natural gas, the recurring economic, social and environmental benefits can be substantial, especially as such waste-wood options are near carbon neutral and because energy dollars recirculate rather than leave local economies. When such wood-energy facilities are locally scaled, communities are benefited including the quality of urban forests.

3. Carbon Neutrality. A third consequence of the Energy Statement is that greater dependence on natural gas makes it more difficult for the University to achieve President Brodhead’s commitment for Duke to become carbon neutral in the decades ahead. Rather than directly reducing our own fossil carbon emissions with on-campus renewable energy systems, the University will depend more heavily on generating off-campus carbon offsets to achieve neutrality. The costs of these added carbon offsets will not be inexpensive and will likely increase in the future. These costs do not appear to be included in the financial analysis described in the Energy Program Statement.

Little known is that James B. Duke was a national leader in developing hydro-electricity in the Carolina Piedmont, and he would no doubt be proud of today’s growing interest in energy issues on campus. Surely now is precisely the time for Duke to aggressively grow, not contract, its leadership in sustainable and renewable energy.

Daniel Richter, professor for the Nicholas School of the Environment, is director of graduate studies for the program in ecology and co-director for the Southern Center for Sustainable Forests. Chris Beauvais and Brent Fitzgerald are forestry and energy masters students in the Nicholas School, respectively, and take an independent study with Professor Richter in biomass energy.

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