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Duke eyes building a gas-turbine power plant on campus. Environmentalists wary. Why?

Duke University is looking at whether it would make sense to install on campus a gas-turbine power plant like the one envisioned here.
Duke University is looking at whether it would make sense to install on campus a gas-turbine power plant like the one envisioned here. Duke University

Duke University ought to conduct a "bottom-up" review of its energy needs, one open to community groups, before deciding to do anything like allowing a utility to install a gas-turbine power plant on campus, a coalition of environmental and political groups says.

The coalition includes Durham's People's Alliance, the city's single most influential political organization, and weighed in on March 9 via a letter to Duke President Vince Price.

In it, the groups voiced the fear that Duke is approaching a "likely decision point" in May about whether to resume work on the idea of joining forces with Duke Energy to place a "combined heat and power" turbine near Wallace Wade Stadium.

University interest in the project surfaced late in former Duke President Richard Brodhead's administration but has been on hold for more than a year. The groups behind the letter aren't assuming the university's subsequent silence on the matter is a sign that the idea's been abandoned.

To the contrary, in pointing to May they're alluding to a month that always crucial for decision-making at Duke because the campus trustees arrive in Durham to meet just ahead of the annual spring commencement ceremony. And they're unhappy that "no action has yet been taken to engage external stakeholders" in further debate about the project and the underlying reasons for it.

They also want a pledge from Price that Duke will delay a formal vote "past May" to allow for more conversation.

In response, Duke officials didn't offer that, exactly, but Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld did say that "no action is planned in May or the near future."

He added that trustees "are briefed on a regular basis," and that "study and engagement" about the proposal "has taken place on campus and in the community."

But campus officials said later that they hope "to be in a position to make a decision regarding" a potential fuel source for the turbine this year. They'll hold a forum on on campus in Penn Pavilion on April 10 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The proposed power plant is little more than a ground-anchored jet engine. Fueled by some form of natural gas, it would turn a generator to produce electricity for Duke Energy, and via a heat exchanger also create steam for us in the university's heating and cooling network.

Its prospective use of natural gas is what's made the project controversial with environmental groups like the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network that oppose the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

N.C. WARN co-signed the letter along with such organizations as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

Duke University's interest in the project traces to a number of reasons, including the desire for to have more back-up sources of power should a hurricane, an ice storm or some other disaster cut off access to the power company's grid. The plant would have switchgear to direct its electricity to the campus in such an emergency.

More broadly, campus officials think the turbine could supply steam less expensively than the university's existing steam-generation plants, and with less environmental impact.

Suffice to say, environmental groups contest all those propositions, and they're also not mollified by Duke University's professed interest in fueling the turbine with "bio-gas" recovered from hog farms and other livestock operations to reduce its carbon footprint.

Before going ahead with anything, it's "necessary to fully understand university energy needs and to identify a process that will result in reducing — not increasing — on-campus emissions over time," the coalition said in its letter.

A turbine "may be part of this solution, but the best approach for Duke’s campus and the climate cannot be determined without a careful, bottom-up review," it added.

As for bio-gas, the 18 groups that co-signed the letter said they suspect using bio-gas to fuel the turbine won't produce any actual reduction in carbon emissions. In essence, they see the move only masking an addition to the demand for fuel, rather than cutting back on demand.

They also worry that the university will fulfill any promise to use bio-gas by purchasing "swine-methane credits," actually burning traditional natural gas in the turbine but using accounting moves to claim carbon-emission reductions.

But should the university go ahead, it would buy bio-gas in eastern North Carolina and have it "injected into the pipeline" that already brings traditional gas to campus, Schoenfeld said, reiterating one of the assumptions of a campus committee that looked at the idea last year.

That committee, without endorsing the idea of installing the turbine,said the university should go ahead only if it can buy enough bio-gas in its first year of operation to make it carbon-neutral and fully fuel it with bio-gas by its fifth year.

Schoenfeld said the university's continuing to pursue other energy sources, as exemplified by a pending move to install solar panels on the top level of its Research Drive parking deck.

Last year's study committee agreed that it's "not currently realistic or feasible" to use solar to meet the university's steam needs because of space limitations and the likely cost.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg