In delaying recommendation, Duke University subcommittee concerned about “credibility” problem with new natural gas plant

Illustration of a proposed natural gas plant at Duke University

A vote on a proposed combined heat-and-power natural gas plant at Duke University has been delayed — again. (Image: Duke University)

For a university that has always been protective of its global reputation, contributing to global greenhouse gases through a natural gas plant is no way to burnish that image. That’s one of the conclusions of a Duke University Campus Sustainability Subcommittee, which released a report on a proposed combined heat-and- power natural gas plant today.

As a result, university Executive  Vice President Tallman Trask announced that the board of trustees won’t vote as scheduled on a new $55 million, 21-megawatt combined heat and power natural gas plant on campus. Trask issued the statement after receiving a 37-page report from a university subcommittee charged with evaluating the pros and cons of the project. The subcommittee could not reach a consensus on whether to build the plant.

“Given the complexity of these issues, we will not be bringing a proposal forward for approval by the Board of Trustees in May,” Trask wrote on the Duke News Today website. “Be assured that the university will continue to engage stakeholders in the process in a meaningful way, and that any decision will be, first and foremost, consistent with our longstanding commitment to leadership in sustainability and responsible stewardship of the environment.”

Instead, the subcommittee recommended that university leaders more fully explore using swine waste instead of natural gas to fuel a proposed new power plant.  In its report, the subcommittee and its “Alternatives Group” expressed several concerns about the environmental impacts of the plant and the institution’s reputation as a climate-change leader.

“Several members of the subcommittee questioned whether the university could credibly serve as a climate leader if it were to partner with a large investor-owned utility such as Duke Energy,” the report read. “The subcommittee also considered the other side of the coin — whether the university could use the partnership to push the utility toward cleaner sources of power.”

The subcommittee did agree that addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions are an institutional priority. Meanwhile, the university still must provide a level of reliable energy not only for the campus but the medical center, the report stated. The subcommittee’s alternatives group noted that if Duke University uses biogas, such as from swine waste, rather than natural gas, that would “constitute true climate change leadership.”

The alternatives group also questioned the university’s energy demand projections, although Duke officials stood by their figures. Those call for additional hot water capacity in 2022 and steam, which would be produced by a gas boiler, in 2024. By using combined heat and power, the natural gas plant would still be more efficient than a traditional one. However, it would still emit greenhouse gas emissions. And because the natural gas would likely come from fracking, it would contribute to methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas.

By using swine waste, not only would the plant virtually eliminate greenhouse gases, but it also would remove methane from the environment. Swine waste — and manure from all livestock — are even greater sources of methane than natural gas.

In addition, the subcommittee stated it was concerned that since the proposed plant would generate 21 megawatts, it would be exempt from certain Clean Air Act requirements; those kick in at 25 megawatts. If the plant is built using natural gas, it should be regulated as if it were under the CAA. Additional energy efficiency could further reduce energy demand on campus.

The idea of the plant started a year ago, although formal discussions didn’t begin until the fall, when classes resumed. As a consequence of campus and public interest, the Campus Sustainability Committee formed a special subcommittee of faculty, staff and students ( a list is in the report) to investigate issues regarding the plan. The subcommittee is chaired by Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. In late March, the university held a contentious public meeting about the project in which many Durham residents complained that they had been excluded from the discussion. Today’s report includes a record of those comments.

NC WARN, which led the opposition to the plant, issued a statement today: “[We] applaud President Brodhead’s decision to delay the project in order to more fully and openly assess the project and cheaper, clean energy alternatives.  If attempts to build the plant resume, we look forward to regaining a constructive dialogue that includes the Durham community’s voices as important stakeholders.”


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