UNC had a plan to stop using coal to power its campus by 2020. That has changed.

Duke Energy plans to close its NC coal plants

Some advocates for closing plants say the changes aren't coming soon enough.
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Some advocates for closing plants say the changes aren't coming soon enough.

Residents and environmentalists say UNC is breaking its pledge to stop using coal by 2020 with its application to renew an air quality permit for its Cameron Avenue power plant.

The five-year Title V permit, issued under the federal Clean Air Act, expires in 2021 — a year after former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp had pledged to close the co-generation plant, which burns coal and other fossil fuels to produce steam and electricity.

“That is what triggered this fight, and we are working ultimately to close the coal-fired facility on campus,” said Perrin de Jong, staff attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “In the meantime, if we’re stuck with this archaic dinosaur facility, then we want it to be as protective of public health and the environment as possible.”

The university’s new goal, set by former Chancellor Carol Folt in 2015, is to be “climate neutral” by 2050. Its part of a Three Zeros Environmental Initiative that advocates for using less water, sending less waste to the landfill and emitting less greenhouse gas.

Completely replacing coal as the university’s heating and electrical source will be a challenge, Brad Ives, associate vice chancellor for Campus Enterprises and chief sustainability officer, told the Town Council on Wednesday.

Over half of the steam created at the co-gen plant and a natural gas-powered plant on Manning Drive is used by UNC Hospitals and the research labs, he said. The electricity generated meets 20 percent of the campus’ needs.

Public health, environmental risks

Chapel Hill resident Elizabeth O’Nan brought UNC’s renewal application to the Town Council’s attention in late October. She and others asked the council Wednesday to press UNC for a public hearing on the issue and to keep its pledge to eliminate coal by 2020.

The only clean alternatives are solar, wind and geothermal wells, said Susan Crotts, with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

“With all that is known about the environmental and health damage caused by fracking, coal mining, biomass, and the nuclear disaster at Fukushima [in Japan], these sources must be eliminated and replaced with healthy, sustainable and clean energy,” she said.

A recent analysis shows there may be some cause for concern, de Jong said.

An analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity, a nationwide conservation group, found that UNC’s existing permit allows hazardous pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, to be emitted at four to six times the Clean Air Act’s safe limits, he said.

It contrasted with an N.C. Division of Air Quality inspection form submitted Jan. 16 that reported UNC’s co-gen plant emitted 239.85 tons of sulfur dioxide and 286.72 tons of nitrogen oxides in 2016. It did not find any violations.

The difference between that analysis and state inspection reports may be in how pollutant levels are measured. The analysis uses one-hour averages for emissions, while the state inspection looks at a three-year average of one-hour measurements.

Regardless, de Jong and others contend current pollution levels are a health hazard that can cause respiratory diseases and premature death across most of UNC’s campus and several Chapel Hill neighborhoods.

“We’re glad to hear from UNC’s leadership, but they need to understand why the community is so opposed to these polluting power plants,” de Jong said. “There’s no valid excuse for letting these outmoded facilities continue to contaminate the air we breathe.”

Water, waste and climate change

UNC is seeing success since the Three Zeros initiative kicked off, Ives said. The water goals have been met through conservation and the use of recycled water for irrigation and toilets. UNC also has diverted 40 percent of its waste from the landfill and is working with the town and county on other options, he said.

Annual coal usage has been cut by almost half in the last several years, in part, by increasing the use of natural gas. UNC also installed solar arrays and a generator at its Carolina North campus that collects and burns methane gas from the former Orange County landfill, selling the electricity produced to Duke Energy. Greenhouse gas emissions are down 17 percent since 2007, Ives said.

With the renewed five-year permit, UNC will be able to modify the co-gen plant to further cut coal usage, from 72 percent to 50 percent of the fuel being used, Ives said. It will be more challenging to eliminate coal after that, he said, which is why UNC is starting a long-term master planning process this year.

“We will get off of coal. We will improve our emissions. We will achieve our Three Zeros goals,” Ives said. “That’s what’s going to be in the best interests of our campus, this community, the state, the world, the climate. We’ve got to do things like this.”

Still, residents were concerned that UNC might drag its feet until 2050.

“We are in a time of climate crisis, and for UNC to drag its feet and talk about moving to methane, which is 86 to 100 times worse for the climate than coal, is terrifying,” said John Wagner, a Chapel Hill native and former UNC School of Medicine analyst programmer. “In terms of the air, Chapel Hill and Carrboro and the students and the faculty and the staff and the workers at UNC deserve to have UNC stop burning coal, and I encourage the town of Chapel Hill to push for that.”

Other universities have replaced their coal-fired boilers, including the University of Georgia at Athens, which installed electric boilers, de Jong said. He noted the time to address climate change is now.

“In the end, 2050 is too late to make a difference that’s meaningful to any of us alive today or life on earth in general,” de Jong said. “For UNC to put off carbon neutrality until 2050 is an abdication of its duty as a public institution working for the public good [and] to contribute to the climate solution.”

UNC presentation

Access the presentation at https://bit.ly/2SA7XjL

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.