Lifting the Veil: Part 2 of Duke’s Natural Gas Plant Debate

If you are just joining us in our series on the proposed combined heat and power (CHP) plant on Duke University’s West Campus, here’s what we know so far:

  • The plant would run on natural gas, which may be a problematic fuel source considering the environmental threats behind shale gas extraction. There is no way of knowing if the CHP plant will or will not run on shale gas alone and if so, by how much. However, the existence of an additional plant running on natural gas increases the longevity of the domestic market for further natural gas extraction, including methods of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in shale formations.
  • Duke Energy has put forth the CHP plant proposal to the North Carolina Utilities Commission (NCUC). The expected turnaround for a response from the NCUC is between 2 to 6 months.
  • If it is built, Duke University’s CO2 emissions will decrease but there is contention on how much it will decrease. Duke Facilities Management says it will be by 18% of our current Climate Action Plan (CAP) emissions. Professors Drew Shindell and Prasad Kasibhatla disagree and say it will be closer to 4%.


Duke’s Energy Initiative has planned a forum on October 25th to discuss these various disagreements. Duke Climate Coalition (DCC), led by Claire Wang has been one of vocal parties in opposition to the way this proposal has come about. They will be hosting their own town hall discussion on November 3rd. I virtually interviewed one of their representatives, Helena Rhim, who offered the DCC’s perspective. This interview has been edited and condensed for length:


Soli Shin (SS): What are some of DCC’s thoughts on the proposal?

Helena Rhim (HR): While we understand that Duke University must purchase electricity from Duke Energy by nature of North Carolina’s energy policies, we do not want the university to actively enable Duke Energy’s fossil fuel legacy by allowing the utility to house a new natural gas plant on campus. Duke Energy has shown time and time again that it values profit over environmental protection, has no interest in expanding its portfolio of renewable energy options, and in fact, it’s been pushing projects to rapidly expand fossil fuel infrastructure all over its service territory (for example, with its currently proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, an almost 600-mile long natural gas pipeline).

SS: In the DCC’s opinion, is it specifically the partnership with Duke Energy that is concerning or are there inherent concerns regarding natural gas as a fuel source? 

HR: Although our partnership with Duke Energy has notable implications, the proposal for a natural gas plant is where the problem lies. The prevalence of methane – a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide – completely negates the benefits of a cleaner burn when it comes to natural gas, and although there’s been some recent debate on the precise climate impacts of methane leakage, this scientific uncertainty is all the more reason to back out of a potentially 35-year commitment to gas, rather than jump in blindly.  

SS: What is DCC’s definition of false climate solutions?

HR: False climate solutions are the actions that can actually lead us to harm to our communities and ecosystems in the long run. By not fully addressing all of the climate impacts of a decision in the present, we’re creating the risk of locking in resources, infrastructure, and ideas that may hinder debilitate the advancement of truly effective climate change initiatives.

SS: If the best that we, as a university, can do is still more forward-thinking than other institutions, is this not a version of leadership?

HR: We have the power to change our role and to be spokespeople for these ratepayers of Duke Energy, in Durham and beyond North Carolina, who look up to us to say no to Duke Energy’s natural gas plant and to require that they invest in more renewables. Moreover, university leadership involves more than just forward-thinking. It entails providing transparency throughout the entire decision-making process and offering a legitimate platform for those affected by the decision – us students, alumni, the faculty, and community members – to voice their opinions and expertise during the deliberation process.

SS: Does the DCC have any response to the statement that this CHP plant would be built with options to convert or retrofit should better fuels and technologies become economically feasible and more useful in the future?

HR: There is currently no contractual obligation to implement these cleaner proposals, even if they did exist. Because of the lack of transparency, we are simply taking the administration at their word. These promises of retrofits or exit clauses for the plant must be made before any contract is finalized and must be written into the contract itself. The fact that the university is already looking for a way out suggests that this plant may not be the best choice, especially given the rapidly changing energy landscape and the lack of evidence that a brand-new investment is at all necessary.





The trend of vocal students, faculty, and community stakeholders against fossil fuel dependence cannot be shaken off lightly. Yet, we must remember that there is a distinction to be made about the merits of the plant itself versus the accusations against the concerns about lack of openness in the administration’s discussions with Duke Energy.

Clearly, one of the most alarming consequences of this CHP plant’s approval would be to set a precedent that bypasses or discourages discussion on future plans affecting the entire university. As members of the Duke community, we should attend both events on October 25th and November 3rd to continue to seek understanding between all parties.

The opinions expressed in this blog reflect those of its author, the Nicholas School of the Environment’s sponsorship of the October 25 forum does not represent an endorsement of, or position on, the proposed plant. We encourage all members of our community to attend the October 25 forum.

For any questions and comments, please email me at