Voices from the CHP Forum: Part 3 of Duke’s Natural Gas Plant Debate

The air in the atrium of Gross Hall was buzzing with anticipation. Students and other stakeholders had been hearing about this forum for weeks in anticipation of a clash of opinions on the CHP plant proposal between Duke University and Duke Energy.

Unsurprisingly, despite the differing levels of support, panel members had been gracious in answering audience questions, as well as responding to one another when it came to divergent opinions. Tim Profeta, director of Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, moderated the event. “We’re trying to make this a conversation,” he said, setting a tone of equity at the start of the event that carried on throughout the evening.

A who’s who of the CHP forum:

Ryke Longest: Director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic / Clinical Professor of Law at the Duke University School of Law

Tim Johnson: Associate Professor of the Practice in Energy and the Environment at the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, Chair of the Energy and Environment Program

Casey Collins: Energy Manager at Duke University Facilities Management Department

Russell Thompson: Director of Utilities & Engineering at Duke University Facilities Management Department

Ted Herman: Co-president of the Nicholas School Energy Club (MEM/MBA)

Tallman Trask III: Executive Vice President,Duke University’s principal administrative and fiscal officer

Claire Wang: Sophomore at Duke University, President of Duke Climate Coalition

From left to right: Tim Profeta (moderator), Ryke Longest, Tim Johnson, Casey Collins, Russell Thompson, Ted Herman, Tallman Trask III, Claire Wang. Photo courtesy of Duke Climate Coalition.

Brian Murray, interim director of the Duke Energy Initiative, opened the event with a short introduction, stating that “no one on the panel is here to voice their stance, even if they have one or not.” However, as the evening progressed, it was clear which panelists were generally supportive of the plant. This support was held in tandem with valid objections and concerns about administrative process and the plant’s use of renewables in the future.

I interviewed Russell Thompson who talked me through how Duke University’s Facilities Management Department investigated the proposal. Prior to the announcement in May, the Facilities team has been working for nearly a year on a feasibility study.

It was acknowledged at the forum that the timing of the announcement could have been better. Casey Collins, regarding the release coinciding with the end of the school year, admitted that “we goofed on the PR.”

The questions that Russell and his team thought through were expansive in nature: what is the right size, where would it go, etc. However, their report does attempt to provide concrete answers to some of the issues involving energy reliability/security and carbon emissions.

Energy Security on Campus

“Reliability is the most important thing to us” Russell stated. “There are multiple failure modes that we’re worried about. [Diesel generators] don’t run well for a long period of time. The fact is that the majority of the rest of the facilities do not have good back-up.”

Biogas, Just a Pipe Dream?

As a response to the issue of renewables, he added that “biogas can be used, it is a matter of creating enough supply and demand to make it economically feasible. It’s a brand new market, there are a lot of players already involved. Biogas has a lot of interest and it can be put in the natural gas pipeline.”

Since the existing infrastructure of natural gas can lend itself easily to biogas, it would be the presumed first choice renewable for this plant.


According to Facilities, CHP plant is the most energy efficient type of natural gas powered plant that is feasible at the moment.

“It is the most efficient way today to make electricity and steam at the same time. The efficiency gets up to 85%. We’ll be able to purchase steam at a lower rate. We will get to avoid building another hot water plant. Emissions is a big deal, we’ll burn 50% less natural gas (18% reduction in emissions). As part of our CAP plan, natural gas is a ‘bridge fuel’.”

As Casey eloquently put it, “the three legs of this stool are reliability, environmental impacts, and economics.”

There are still months before the NCUC declares whether it has approved the plan as is or not. During that time, I hope to see more efforts similar to the achievement of this forum, where Duke community members can seek answers to hard questions.

Notably, there were no non-Duke panelists during the forum. NC Warn, a local climate and energy justice group passed out flyers at the beginning of the event to amplify their own concerns about the plan. It will be interesting to see how the DCC’s Town Hall (November 3rd at 7:00 pm) will differ from this past forum. More than likely, there will be representatives of external stakeholder groups like NC Warn that will add their own voices to the mix.