CHP plant, spring revival?

What’s the update since the holiday season regarding the proposed Combined Heat and Power (CHP) natural gas plant?

Before we launch into that question, I want to bring readers’ attentions to the Climate Reality Project (Al Gore’s non-profit brainchild) at Duke. You may have even seen them outside of the Penn Pavilion, urging you to sign their petition with the promise of a nifty pin in exchange.

What is the petition about? They are an affiliated group of Duke Climate Coalition (DCC), recently known for their vocal opposition to Duke Energy’s proposed CHP plant on campus. Unsurprisingly, the aims of Climate Reality align with the message we have heard from DCC – that we must, as sustainability leaders in academia, advance our clean energy goals.

Aiming for 100% renewable energy on campus by 2030 is a highly ambitious goal. Definitely higher than the Duke University’s current Climate Action Plan (produced around 2007), although the Campus Sustainability Committee (CSC) have plans to update this plan in the coming months. Right now, the jury is still out on whether signing petitions actually help drive change or if they are little more than about feeling good or, in our case, feeling green.

In the midst of President Trump’s inauguration and his first 100 days, we have seen public letters, demonstrations and all manner of infographics, texts and images. How do we, as a community of politically-active students on all sides of the spectrum, deal with processing this deluge? How do we decide how to spend our efforts?

Thinking locally is a hugely important way to not only feel connected within your community but to actualize the policies that empower the issues you care about. It is a smaller arena where we can fight our battles, even if it seems as impossible as changing national policy. There are institutional powers at play when it comes to the CHP plant, undoubtedly. Duke Energy is the biggest utility in the country. Duke University, as well as being a chart-topping icon of education, is also a well-oiled business.

Both institutions do not have bad intentions, but it does mean that the onus is on the communal body, whether that means customers or students, to impart their voices on what needs to be changed.

Towards the end of last semester, the North Carolina Public Commission had received a statement from Duke University to request more time. The language implicates that this request is in effect due to the increasing concern on campus and across the Durham area about the plant and the contract terms. The decision is up to Duke University to accept, re-negotiate or outright cancel this plan.

At an interdisciplinary luncheon hosted by the DCC on Feb. 14, we heard from the legal, technical and environmental perspective. Professor Tim Johnson reiterated that we, as a campus, do not have a replacement for steam or hot water and the critical end-uses that those provide within our buildings.

From left to right: Bill Schlesinger, Tyler Wakefield (Co-president of the Undergraduate Energy Club), Tim Johnson,  Ryke Longest (Director, Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Duke Law)

Additionally, our campus is continuing to grow, both in student population and workforce. Although we are not “at capacity” in terms of the energy we produce on campus, it is clear that we will need some sort of new energy source for smooth operations going forward.

Expansions to the current steam plants on campus are possible. Other alternatives include burning biomass instead of natural gas but, in order to have enough fuel, you would need to transport the biomass in trucks. This fuel switch may also end up polluting more than a natural gas-fired plant due to the ash and PM created from the combustion process of biomass. Biogas continues to be discussed as a renewable option.

Bill Schlesinger, former dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment, stands by the opinion that universities should uphold their role as avant-garde thinkers. He agrees that the power needs are complicated but locking in an infrastructure that will be with us for a long time is incompatible with dealing with today’s climate issues.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to our principles at the campus level – from the administration to the students themselves. The array of power options can be simplified in terms of their economic feasibility, for the sake of comparison. In April, we should hear from the CHP Subcommittee (under the CSC) on how the school plans to proceed. Yes, we are a school with a large endowment but our money should be viewed in the context of need, outside of energy projects, as well as innovative investments. 

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