Through its history, Duke University has contributed a wealth of knowledge that has been the foundation of advocacy and innovation to build a cleaner, healthier future. This legacy has made Duke a leader in environmental scholarship worldwide – manifested in the creation of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment 25 years ago.
Duke has also distinguished itself in its endeavors to develop sustainable campus operations. Duke’s climate neutrality commitments, its campus emissions reductions and its investments in local carbon offsets have set the university apart as a champion of climate action.
At a time when our nation’s policymakers are not focused on environmental protections, Duke’s leadership is needed more than ever.
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. Climate change was created by fossil fuels – a new investment that could leave the university dependent on fracked gas beyond the year 2050 is not a climate solution. Research by Duke’s own faculty has revealed the dangers of such natural gas production – from water contamination to leaks of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.
Duke has proposed that the plant could be transitioned to swine biogas in the future, building on its long-delayed pilot project at Loyd Ray Farms to create a North Carolina biogas market. Certainly, Duke’s leadership would be welcome in addressing the environmental justice problems of North Carolina’s swine farms.
However, 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.
Instead of a gas plant, Duke could invest in a grid-connected solar farm to meet energy needs without carbon emissions. In recent years, solar has achieved cost-parity with traditional sources of electricity. A solar-powered campus would point the way to the future.
This proposed gas plant is a test case not only for Duke, but also for energy investments across the nation.
Duke Energy, which would own and operate the plant, is already working to replicate this plant at other colleges in the Carolinas. Natural gas plants are being proposed across the country, creating a new generation of fossil fuel infrastructure and new major sources of carbon emissions.
Duke University has the opportunity set a powerful precedent and example for clean energy and a healthy environment by rejecting this proposed gas facility.
Norman L. Christensen
William H. Schlesinger
The authors, along with co-authors William L. Chameides, and Alan Townsend, are former deans of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke. The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the issue.