UNC has a gaggle of sustainable and green awards, many hailing its Cogeneration Facility on Cameron Avenue as among the cleanest power plants in the country. Though coal helps to power it, university leaders assure that the plant has the required equipment to minimize the amount of pollutants belching from its stacks. Eventually, UNC will go carbon neutral, which means it will balance any carbon dioxide emissions with an equal amount of reductions or offsets, officials say. But according to the university's current climate plan, that won't happen until Chancellor Holden Thorp is about 86 years old, in 2050.
Environmentalists say the plaques and the timetable aren't good enough, and they have Al Gore's global warming guru, renowned climate scientist James Hansen, on their side.
"2050 is not the right target for a university to be setting," Hansen said last week at UNC, as he rallied with students in front of the coal-fired cogeneration plant. "The world must phase out coal by 2030. We need to do it much faster than that. I would hope the university can even be a leader within the United States."
Laura Stevens, organizer for the Sierra Club's Coal-Free Campus Campaign, takes issue with UNC's claim that the co-gen plant, as it's known, is clean.
"It's true that it's better than your average coal plant, but you're at the top of the bottom," Stevens said. "You're the best at using the worst kind of energy."
Stevens, a representative of the Sierra Club's national anti-coal campaign, which targets 50 campuses, started her work in September and has gathered 150 students to help pressure UNC to phase out its use of coal. Campus activists want universities to move away from coal, the cheapest, but dirtiest fossil fuel, though they don't advocate a specific renewable energy plan.
UNC started examining its energy sources in 2007, when then-Chancellor James Moeser signed on to the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, pledging that the university would become carbon neutral by 2050. Thorp has continued on that track, and last year a group of professors, administrators and students crafted a fresh Climate Action Plan. It includes replacing 20 percent of the coal with "torrefied" wood—a process of "roasting" wood chips in a large furnace to remove the moisture and make the product more brittle and easier to burn—by 2025 and seeking alternative sources farther down the line. The goal is to bring emission levels back to their 2000 mark by 2020.
In November, after an ongoing dialogue with Sierra Club campaign leaders, Thorp said UNC couldn't accelerate those plans because it will take time to determine the proper mix of biomass, and UNC doesn't have enough natural gas boiler capacity to go coal-free now.
"I appreciate your idealism and your tenacity," Thorp wrote. "But I cannot change the timetable for greenhouse gas reduction outlined in our Climate Action Plan. You might wish to consider working with campuses not as advanced as ours."
But faced with a growing student movement and Hansen's visit to campus to share a desperate warning on climate change, Thorp warmed to the idea of pursuing alternatives. In January, he commissioned an energy task force, scheduled to meet for the first time this week, to examine what steps other institutions are taking to reduce their carbon footprint and to look for ways for UNC to reach its goal more quickly.
Tim Toben, chairman of the N.C. Energy Policy Council, which is formulating a long-range state energy plan, will lead it. Toben also serves on the UNC Institute for the Environment's Board of Visitors and the N.C. Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change. He is a managing partner of Greenbridge, touted as an environmentally friendly condo community in Chapel Hill.
His selection to the task force and his personal views signal that questions about UNC phasing out its coal use are gradually moving beyond why and on to how and when.
"My goal, and Jim Hansen's goal, are very much aligned," Toben said. "What we have to figure out is, what are those hurdles? Why are we not there today? Why not in five years? And if not five years, then why not in10 years?"
Toben said Thorp has assured him that he's open to new ideas. "He is willing to listen to others from outside of the campus present alternatives," Toben said. "If those alternatives are both cost-effective and achieve greenhouse gas targets at a faster rate, he's going to be all ears."
Though the group will address many aspects of campus energy during its yearlong analysis, the cogeneration plant is likely to dominate the discussion. Built in 1991, it uses a combination of two coal-fired boilers and three natural gas boilers to cool and heat 175 campus buildings, including UNC hospitals. It can supply up to a third of the campus's energy during peak usage.
University officials contend that a cogeneration plant is more environmentally benign than traditional power generators. They are quick to point out that producing both steam and electricity in one plant is twice as efficient.
Responding to a letter from Stevens about the cogeneration plant, Thorp wrote in September that UNC has "taken steps to reduce the environmental impact of our coal usage as much as possible," explaining that coal ash is used as agricultural fill and pointing to Environmental Protection Agency awards the school has received.
However, coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, contains highly toxic metals and chemicals, including lead, mercury and arsenic. Using the ash in agricultural fill or in concrete, which is common, can expose people to those contaminants.
The coal ash must also be stored, often in ponds that can rupture, which happened in 2008 in Tennessee. In 2007, an EPA assessment found that people living near coal ash ponds had higher incidences of liver, kidney and other cancers.
Moreover, the idea of "clean coal" is a fallacy, Hansen said at UNC last week. "The claim that if we burn coal more efficiently we'll be emitting less CO2 does not address at all the problem. The CO2 that we put into the system stays there for millennia, it does not help to burn it slightly more slowly. That has got to be understood. You've got to actually leave the coal in the ground."
Thorp also asserts that UNC's coal suppliers do not use mountaintop-removal coal and that most of it is deep-mined bituminous coal. (Bituminous coal contains less carbon than the anthracite variety but more than lignite. Deep mining also harms the environment.)
The Indy filed an open records request Jan. 29 for the amount of coal bought and used at the plant for the past five years, and its cost and origin. The request wasn't filled by press time.
The task force also faces a challenge in considering the current greenhouse gas emission levels. UNC was responsible for 569,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2008, a 37 percent leap from 2000. This is despite a 12.5 percent reduction in greenhouse gases per 1,000-square feet of building space; they're using space more efficiently, but there is more square-footage. Coal accounted for 63 percent of the emissions.
The statistics led the coal-free campaign to dub the plant "the biggest polluter in Orange County." But it's hard to put these figures in context, given the great variance in the size and function of power plants, said Tom Mather, spokesman for the N.C. Division of Air Quality "Where there's a power plant in any county, it's is typically the largest source of air pollution," he said.
In the past five years, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources cited UNC for two violations related to the cogeneration plant, according to state documents. One was minor, a reporting delay in 2007. However, in 2005, the plant exceeded its permitted amounts of sulfur dioxide. Short-term exposure to sulfur dioxide can worsen asthma or other respiratory illnesses, according to the EPA. Sulfur dioxide can also bind to other particles in the air, penetrate deeply into the lungs and aggravate existing heart and respiratory diseases.
Pat Leighten, a Duke University art history professor, has lived for 11 years just 1,200 feet from the plant. She said she only recently learned about the risks of air emissions and the extent of UNC's coal use. Now she worries about breathing arsenic, mercury and lead.
"I fell into trust in UNC not to be undermining the public health while it heated and cooled its campus," she said. "Part of me is in shock."