Duke CHP Plant: Heated Controversy

Note: As of April 6th, 2018, Duke has indefinitely delayed its plans for a new CHP plant, as described here. This post was written as a class assignment prior to that announcement, as well as the recent public meeting related to the plans, and therefore does not incorporate the latest developments related to the project. 

As Duke University adds many new buildings to its campus and continues to maintain its important hospital, the University is looking towards creating a more cost effective and environmentally friendly method to continuing supplying energy demand. This need has led to innovative suggestions for solutions, but also has raised controversy over the environmental and societal impacts of those solutions. One of the most notable proposals was from Duke Energy in 2016 to build a 21-megawatt natural gas Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant on Duke University’s West Campus.

Duke University has a complex energy system, but generally uses steam to heat its buildings, and uses regular electricity as well. Given this info, a CHP plant seemed to be a good addition. A CHP plant is different from a traditional plant. A traditional plant produces steam and power separately, thereby having only 40-45% efficiency. Excess heat from the processes is wasted. A CHP plant, however, combines the processes of production to utilize excess heat, and increases efficiency to 75-80%.

Since Duke University’s announcement, there’s been both positive and negative speculation from all parties involved. The negative speculation has led to an indefinite halt in the University’s plans. University officials now say that the CHP plant might not be the best environmental move, nor necessarily the best step forward.

Both proponents and detractors (in reality the teams aren’t so black-and-white—even the University’s stance has changed evolved over time) come from all levels of scholarship and backgrounds, and argue different sides of the same issues. Proponents say that greater efficiency, cost savings, and reduced emissions make the CHP plant the next logical step. Detractors say that the alleged lowering of Duke University’s carbon footprint through the CHP plant by estimates of 13-23% is due to technicalities wherein responsibility of emissions is shifted from the University to Duke Energy, and would only result in a 2-4% decrease. Proponents say that the CHP plant would reduce the amount of power the electricity grid derives from coal by switching to cleaner-burning natural gas. Detractors argue that the University must uphold its pledge to the climate, and that the plant would only perpetuate reliance on fossil fuels. Proponents argue that Duke University has the legal right to switch to from natural gas to biogas sourced from NC hogging operations once that becomes feasible. Since hogging and its byproducts are a large environmental issue in North Carolina, proponents highlight this point. Detractors say the commercial availability of biogas could take decades to achieve. Proponents have also said the University would become more energy independent in the event of power outages, especially in relation to critical services like the hospital. Opponents argue the University doesn’t need energy independence given virtually no outages in the past 30 years, but also that the plant, in the event of a short outage, wouldn’t even supply the necessary energy.  Additionally, many opponents of the plant, especially from the local Durham community, voice simple distrust for Duke Energy’s motives and claim a lack of transparency.

However, the decision-making process has been fairly transparent and involved, at least between University officials and the community. After the announcement of the partnership, the Duke Energy Initiative (Duke University) held a forum with officials from Duke Energy, Duke University, and the local community. Duke University’s openness to the indefinite delay of the plant shows it’s open to feedback.

The context of the situation is tied up economically and politically. There’s too much uncertainty for immediate action on the plant. “Facts” given by either side are conflicting. The only solution allowing the plant to be built with minimal controversy/disagreement is the advent of commercially available biogas. This is especially true given that it would also go towards solving many of the environmental justice issues associated with hog farming in North Carolina. Therefore, I would recommend heavy focus and large investment by Duke University into the research and development of commercially available biogas from NC hog farms. When accomplished, the plant should be built. Quick turnaround on this research and development would benefit the University in the eyes of its alumni/donors, faculty, students. It also would reflect on the University’s self-stated role as a Climate Action leader, especially because this achievement would have broad impacts on not only Duke, but potentially the world.

For more general information/sources (I make no claim to that they are biased or unbiased) not explicitly covered or hyperlinked in this blog, but that information was drawn from, please visit:

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