In May, about thirty-six hours after the last day of finals let out, Duke University issued a press release announcing a partnership with the other hugely powerful Duke in North Carolina: Duke Energy.
The utility intends to build—and operate for thirty-five years into the future—a large natural gas plant on the university's campus. Nothing is set in stone; the project must first clear the hurdle of the N.C. Utilities Commission. If it does, the two Dukes would then hammer out specific terms before signing the deal. The project, estimated to cost roughly $55 million, could be functional as soon as 2018.
But not everyone's happy about this. Clean-energy advocates on campus view the timing of the announcement—days after students departed for their hometowns and summer internships—as evidence of an attempt to thwart public discussion on the issue. There also exists an impression that Duke leadership forged this partnership in a less-than-transparent manner.
"Students and faculty had no knowledge that negotiations were even taking place until the final proposal was made public in May," says Claire Wang, president of the Duke Climate Coalition, a student advocacy group. "A decision of this magnitude requires a transparent, campus-wide dialogue to take into account the expertise of faculty and the interests of students. A series of briefings done behind closed doors is wildly insufficient."
This matters, Wang and others argue, because the plant is inconsistent with Duke University's long-term goals for energy efficiency. Back in 2009, Duke University laid out one of the most aggressive plans in the country for achieving climate neutrality. The aim was, and remains, for the school to have a net-zero carbon footprint by 2024.
The proposed natural gas plant does have some environmentally friendly virtues. It is a combined heat and power facility. That means excess heat brought about by the production of electricity is recovered and converted into thermal energy, which can then be used for steam, space heating, and water heating at the school. University officials believe this added efficiency will reduce carbon emissions by 25 percent.
But natural gas is, of course, a fossil fuel; it releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And while nobody is arguing that the school could immediately power itself solely on renewable energy, a lot can happen in thirty-five years. And under the arrangement outlined in the proposal, Duke University would be tethering itself to dirty energy for the next three decades.
"Future trajectories of renewable energy are only improving—the cost of renewable generation will continue to decline while gas prices will fluctuate and rise," Wang says. "The university must not merely consider the economics of renewables in the present; it must consider how renewables will evolve over the next several decades."
The 2009 climate action plan even anticipated a similar scenario: "There will likely be a point in time when it becomes counterproductive for the university to produce electricity using natural gas—even with the added efficiency of combined heat and power production," the document reads.
Duke University executive vice president Tallman Trask III tells the INDY that the real appeal of the project is the school's need for dependable power to back up Duke Hospital. The natural gas plant would be more reliable and cause less pollution than the two diesel generators the school currently uses as backup.
"I understand the purist argument that all fossil fuels are bad," Trask says. "From our standpoint, the primary driver here is the continuity of electricity. We run the largest hospital in the Carolinas, and it's dependent on electricity sent here from very long distances, and the grid can fail. We can't afford to let the hospital lose power, and this is an economic way of guaranteeing the availability of power for the hospital and research labs. Solar can't achieve that kind of reliability right now."
Trask adds: "Environmentally, this plan is slightly better than the current status quo because, on the margins, it does reduce the amount of natural gas we're burning. My guess is we'll probably save a couple million dollars a year. But that's not the main reason we are pursuing this."
Trask also walks back the thirty-five-year commitment cited in the May press release. "I don't know where that number came from," he says. "If we do the deal—and, remember, we don't know yet if the utilities commission will approve it, and under what conditions it will approve it—we will retain the option of discontinuing our use of the plant at various points in the future. We've said we're not willing to sign an irrevocable long-term deal."
Of course, nobody besides top Duke University and Duke Energy officials can say with certainty what the terms of this natural gas plant agreement might be. If the announcement proposing the plant caught many people off guard, the announcement of the terms of the deal might also catch faculty and staff by surprise.
Drew Shindell, professor of climate sciences at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, says that, while he is disappointed by the process—"The university is supposed to be a pretty egalitarian place, with faculty council, student council, and others having input on decisions like this, and that didn't happen here"—he views the natural gas plant as pragmatic, to a point.
"Imagine a natural disaster that inflicts one hundred million dollars in damages," Shindell says. "You need to rebuild, you raise money, but you only raise twenty million. That's better than nothing. But if the question is whether that amount is adequate in the face of the problems you've got, then the answer is no, it's not. Likewise, the natural gas plant will lead to reduced environmental impact, but not nearly at the level Duke acknowledges in its own climate plan that it needs to be headed."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Blowing Off Steam"