Chapel Hill: Opinion

Kirk Ross: Time UNC kicked the coal habit

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has 330 classes that teach sustainability and one coal-fired power plant.

The classes come from a genuine desire to foster a better world. The coal comes from the Norfolk Southern rail yard in Durham and, before that, a mine or a mountaintop somewhere to our north.

I’ve been through the UNC co-generation facility. It’s a good plant, well run and hella clean for a coal plant, of which I have seen a good many. My father worked in the power business, my grandfather, too. Dad started on the low rung of the ladder in the big plants on the Ohio River that drove the Midwestern industrial boom and worked his way up when coal was king. Over five decades in the industry, I watched him try to solve the question of how you meet this country’s voracious appetite for energy without mucking up the environment completely. He was constantly exploring alternatives and saw, I think, the day we’re in now, when the most promising of those alternatives are finally practical.

Several years ago, I stood at a snow-covered entrance to the university co-generation plant on Cameron Avenue and listened to NASA scientist James Hansen, part of the vanguard of scientists warning about climate change, urge Carolina to ween itself off of coal.

After pressure from student organizers and the Sierra Club in 2010 the university agreed to kick the coal habit by 2020.

That may be the official policy, but things change. The promise of a former chancellor and vague policy resolutions by the ever-changing board of trustees have never been solid currency in this town, and they aren’t in this case.

Real alternatives to fueling the plant have yet to emerge. The regional supply of torrefied wood pellets, the alternative fuel of choice, is not consistent or plentiful enough. Other biofuel alternatives would be costly and with a more fiscally conservative Board of Governors and a legislature less friendly to coal-free goals, it’s easy to see how this could drag out indefinitely.

So what are the alternatives to the alternatives?

The hard thing to get around is that the university chills and boils water to cool and heat its buildings. The “co” in cogeneration is steam and electricity. Changing that entirely would be darn near impossible.

What the university could do is drop the load at the plant by phasing in alternatives. All those unshaded rooftops under the sunny Carolina blue skies could be cranking out a heck of a lot of watts and BTUs if utilized correctly.

And those coal-fired units on Cameron Avenue could be quickly phased out if the university would add natural gas to its list of alternatives. Gas has its own green issues, but a 21st Century turbine would be far cheaper to operate, way more efficient and wouldn’t require a trainload of coal every couple of days and the disposal of tens of thousands of tons of coal ash every year.

And someone in a leadership role at the university has to at least wonder aloud at some point why on earth some there’s a small, legacy power plant sitting in a downtown neighborhood surrounded by young families and students and on top of some of the more valuable real estate in North Carolina.

By limiting itself to trying to make a campus energy system designed in the steam age greener by changing fuels, the university has boxed itself in and prevented a more wide-ranging conversation.

A nationally recognized university with a sustainability office and hundreds of classes teaching the value of the idea can do better.

Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at