Nearly two dozen environmental and community groups have voiced their opposition to a proposed Duke Energy natural gas plant at Duke University, which is now stalled in the state approval process.
Meanwhile, Duke Energy is going ahead with a similar but smaller plant at Clemson University in South Carolina, and a company spokesman said more campus power plants may be on the drawing board.
The opposition at Duke University appears to be mounting ahead of a trustee meeting in May where the issue will be considered. This week, four former deans of the university’s Nicholas School for the Environment wrote a letter to the editor of The News & Observer, urging the university to reject the plant.
“At a time when our nation’s policymakers are not focused on environmental protections, Duke’s leadership is needed more than ever,” wrote the former deans, Norman Christensen, William Schlesinger, William Chameides and Alan Townsend. “Duke’s recent proposal to build a new natural gas plant on its campus would send a dangerous signal to those that look to Duke as a model.”
The former deans instead recommended that the university invest in a grid-connected solar farm to meet its energy needs.
Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said the university is continuing its review of the plant with faculty, students and staff, and that evaluation is expected to be done by May.
The proposed $55 million, 21-megawatt natural gas plant would be owned and operated by Duke Energy, and university officials say it would lower their carbon emissions by 25 percent. The combined heat and power facility would use waste heat from making electricity to produce steam, which would be used for heating water at the university and its hospital. Power would also go back on the grid for use by other customers.
Lowering emissions is a key to Duke achieving its goal of carbon neutrality by 2024, university officials have said.
Despite reaching an agreement to run the plant for 35 years of operation, Duke Energy postponed hearings before the N.C. Utilities Commission a few months ago as opposition grew. Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless said the company is talking to the university about some other possibilities that would work in conjunction with the plant, but didn’t identify what those might be.
Wheeless said the new plant would give the campus added energy security. Environmental groups have, in the past, recommended such combined heat and power plants as a way to reduce emissions, Wheeless added. “Plus, there’s also cost considerations, too. We can do this cheaper than what Duke University is doing.”
The former environment school deans said the university has proposed that the plant could transition to using swine biogas in the future. That would be a welcome solution, the deans said, but “committing to a natural gas contract before the viability of biogas is demonstrated would be short-sighted, risking unintended long-term reliance on fossil fuels.”
Wheeless said he knew of no opposition to a similar $50 million, 16-megawatt gas plant the company plans at Clemson University. The Clemson trustee board last year approved leasing land to Duke Energy for the plant, which could be up and running in 2019.
Student activists at Duke say a plant there would commit the university to decades of burning fossil fuels at a time when clean energy options have gotten cheaper and more feasible.
Representatives of 23 groups sent a letter to university President Richard Brodhead last month, saying the proposed plant is likely to use gas from fracking and could harm the environment and public health. It was signed by groups such as Environment North Carolina, NC WARN, the Sierra Club, N.C. Justice Center and the People’s Alliance in Durham.
“Instead of aiding Duke Energy’s natural gas expansion, Duke University should further its legacy of leadership in global health and environmental action by rejecting the proposed natural gas plant in favor of energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy that will bring about a healthy, sustainable future,” the letter said.
Claire Wang, a Duke sophomore who opposes the plant, said it would negatively affect not only the campus but Duke Energy ratepayers, the surrounding community and places where fracking occurs. The letter from the outside groups, she said, “really points to the significance of a natural gas investment for the broader community.”
Rachel Weber of Environment North Carolina, a 2016 Duke alumna, said the university should not move forward with a new fossil fuel plant. “We think that’s not a good solution and not a good investment to make,” Weber said.