Activists want voice as Duke University considers campus power plant

Activists from two environmental groups faulted Duke University for not being more transparent in its handling of a proposal to build a gas-turbine power plant on campus.

But at a forum Monday at Duke, representatives of the National Resources Defense Council and N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network made clear they also want a seat at the table in the university’s in-house debate about whether to build the 21-megawatt facility in cooperation with the state’s primary electric company, Duke Energy.

“We have offered our expertise to look at the university’s thermal needs,” but “at no point were any details provided to us” other than a few basics, said John Steelman, a senior advocate with the National Resources Defense Council.

Jim Warren, the leader of the state-based waste-awareness group known as N.C. WARN, added that his group wants a committee that’s drafting a report for administrators and campus trustees to “sit down with our technical expert” to discuss the project.

Warren’s comments, though, signaled that he thinks the answer is already clear, namely that “there is no compelling need for any change in their on-campus energy situation.”

Steelman’s take was a bit different. He sees little merit in the university’s argument that it needs an additional source of back-up electricity for the campus, and believes the “real reason is to expand the steam supply to keep up with the growth of the institution.”

The proposed power plant would occupy a site on West campus near Wallace Wade Stadium, and essentially be a ground-based version of a jet engine. It would power a generator for the Duke Energy electrical network, and its exhaust, channeled through a heat exchanger, would flash water into steam for campus heating and cooling systems.

The opposition to the project comes thanks to the turbine’s use of natural gas, a fossil fuel and greenhouse-gas pollutant widely considered a contributor to climate change.

Warren’s group is also generally critical of Duke Energy, and is threatening what he terms “a multi-year legal and street battle” if the university signs on to the joint project.

Monday’s forum was organized under the university’s Campus Sustainability Committee by a special in-house study group that’s supposed to report publicly early next month. Going in, university officials said the event would “help inform” their decision to proceed with or withdraw from the plant proposal.

Warren suspects the study group, chaired by Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Director Tim Profeta, will favor going ahead with the project.

As he moderated the forum, Profeta didn’t say much to dispel that notion, as he said early on the project could help the university “achieve climate leadership” if it can prod Duke Energy into fueling the plant with “bio-gas” recovered from the state’s hog farms in lieu of natural gas removed from subsurface deposits.

Numerous speakers at the forum indicated that they’d rather see the university invest in solar energy and other “renewable” energy sources. Warren at the end of the meeting stopped well short of saying his group thinks that’s the solution, though it thinks the university should take time to do “do a technical analysis of how much solar and battery storage can do” for it.

But N.C. WARN of late has argued that Duke Energy has plenty of surplus power and can operate on narrower margins than it does now. Warren said “there is a glut of electricity supply throughout Duke Energy’s territorities” and those of the utility providers around it.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg