A plan for a $55 million Duke Energy natural gas plant at Duke University could help lower the campus’s carbon emissions by 25 percent, officials say, but student activists oppose any expansion of fossil fuels.
Earlier this month, Duke Energy announced a 35-year agreement with the university for the Charlotte-based company to build and operate the 21-megawatt plant on the Duke campus in Durham. The natural gas facility will produce heat and power for the university.
The plant must be approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission and could begin operating in 2018.
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 go back on the grid to be used by Duke and nearby customers. When built, it could be among the most efficient plants in Duke Energy’s fleet, the company said, and could be a model for serving other large energy users.
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“This partnership will provide value for Duke University and will accelerate our progress towards climate neutrality,” the university’s executive vice president, Tallman Trask III, said in a news release from Duke Energy.
Students don’t want to be placated with false climate solutions. Further investments in fossil fuels never have been and never will be the answer to climate change.
Claire Wang, member of the Duke Climate Coalition
But student activists say this is not the time for the university to launch a new fossil fuel facility.
“The real question is whether or not this approach reflects the best actions the university can take to ensure the best future outcomes, both in terms of energy investment and in terms of its climate commitment. And the answer to that is certainly no,” said Claire Wang, a rising sophomore from Salt Lake City and member of the Duke Climate Coalition. “Students don’t want to be placated with false climate solutions. Further investments in fossil fuels never have been and never will be the answer to climate change.”
By combining steam and electricity systems, the university can reduce overall consumption by millions of units of energy each year, officials said. The campus will also save money because buying the waste heat is less than the cost of the university’s own steam production plant, said Russell Thompson, director of utilities and engineering at the university’s Facilities Management Department.
He estimated the new plant would decrease the university’s overall carbon footprint – including energy and transportation carbon – by 13 percent.
The university has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2024 through a combination of reducing energy use and transportation and buying carbon offsets.
Yet Wang pointed out that the 35-year deal with Duke Energy could foreclose other options that would be more sustainable.
“Even if it does represent some short-term emissions reduction, we have no idea what the energy landscape is going to look like 35 years from now, halfway through the century,” she said.
The news about the plant comes as students have left campus for the year. Activists had been feeling buoyed by the university’s recent endorsement of third-party energy sales in North Carolina, which would allow customers to purchase electricity from renewable energy providers instead of a utility that has a monopoly. In April, a senior Duke official wrote to a state lawmaker urging the adoption of legislation to legalize such sales, which could make renewable energy more affordable.
Activists had been celebrating that victory, but now they’re turning their attention to the Duke Energy plant.
“What you’re seeing is a strong desire on the part of the younger generation to move away from conventional energy sources to more sustainable energy sources,” said Lincoln Pratson, professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke and member of the university’s energy initiative. “What you’re seeing from organizations like Duke is a desire to achieve that goal, but this kind of tightrope walk of doing it in a way that it can afford.”
Thompson said the university continues to study renewable energy options. He pointed out that the new plant will use only one acre of land, but will offset the equivalent of 430 acres of solar panels. The plant will have as much impact as the university’s move away from coal for fuel for its steam plants a few years ago.
“This project is not about choosing between renewable and fossil-fuel generated energy,” Thompson wrote in an email.
The trick here is that it’s all relative in the energy world. There is no perfect source of power. They all have pluses and minuses.
Richard Newell, professor of energy and environmental economics and director of Duke’s energy initiative
Richard Newell, professor of energy and environmental economics and director of Duke’s energy initiative, sees the plant as a logical next step to lower emissions.
“Natural gas is of course not zero in its emissions, but it is a significant reduction relative to the emissions that Duke University would otherwise purchase from the grid,” Newell said. “The trick here is that it’s all relative in the energy world. There is no perfect source of power. They all have pluses and minuses.”
These days, he said, natural gas tends to be the cheapest source of power, reliable and built to a large scale. The plant won’t get the university to zero emissions, but neither would small-scale renewables, Newell said.
“Even if you’re just counting tons of emissions – what at first blush may look less than perfect is actually a better solution,” he said. “Something bigger that’s half perfect is better than something small that’s perfect.”
With natural gas, there is always a danger of methane emissions, which is a damaging greenhouse gas. There is work to be done in the industry to protect against methane leaks, he said.
The goal to be carbon neutral is ambitious and hard to achieve when Duke’s energy comes from a utility.
“One of the things that’s interesting about this on-campus gas plant is it is actually a way for the university to take control over some of the emissions,” Newell said.
The students say they’ll keep pushing. Wang said the Duke Climate Coalition will gear back up in the fall, but she wasn’t ready to reveal a strategy.
Pratson said the pressure helps.
“The push from the younger generation is critical, because it’s going to constantly force organizations like Duke to come up with ways to try and get us in that direction,” he said. “But it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”