The Dec. 17 Point of View “Duke University is smart to build a gas-fueled power plant” by Dave McCurdy presented biased, simplistic and somewhat misleading arguments to suggest that building a gas-fueled combined heat and power plant is a no-brainer for Duke University. In reality, the issue is much more complicated.
It involves not just energy security and financial gain considerations, but also standards of environmental accountability and leadership to which Duke University aspires.
Let us begin with the energy security argument. McCurdy used the fact that Princeton University and New York University did not lose power during Hurricane Sandy to imply that host-based CHP plants are the best way to address energy security issues. McCurdy failed to mention that Duke University’s electricity supply was unaffected during the 2002 winter ice storm, an outcome attributed to the integration of the university power grid with the highly resilient Duke Hospital grid (Duke Chronicle, Dec 9, 2002).
Furthermore, data presented by Duke Facilities Management at the June 2016 IDEA conference indicates that Duke University experienced total power outage for less than 6 seconds in the past 30 years!
None of this is to say that energy security risk must not be carefully analyzed and addressed. But using cherry-picked anecdotes to suggest that host-based CHP plants are the best bet for energy security is nothing more than a scare tactic.
McCurdy also argued that the CHP plant would lower Duke University’s carbon footprint by about 25 percent. This is incorrect. Most of the purported savings are simply the result of an accounting trick that in essence shifts the responsibility of greenhouse gas emissions from the university to Duke Energy.
Applying a more appropriate accounting methodology and properly accounting for natural gas leakage shows that the CHP plant would reduce the university’s carbon footprint by only 2 to 4 percent (Shindell and Kasibhatla, Duke Chronicle, Oct 20, 2016).
From a financial perspective, the project obviously would be beneficial to Duke University. But the larger question is whether Duke University would be reaping an unfair financial advantage because of the fact that the capital cost of building the plant would be borne by the public at large in North Carolina.
Most importantly, the CHP plant raises questions about Duke University’s leadership role in climate change mitigation. Meeting the aspirational goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change requires far-reaching and rapid transformations in how we produce and consume energy. In this context, top research universities have a moral responsibility to lead by example.
Fortunately, Duke University has paused to reflect and conduct a more rigorous analysis rather than rushing to build another fossil fuel-based plant based on simplistic and biased arguments like those presented by McCurdy.
Professor, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the Point of View.