Student group skeptical of alt-fuel source for proposed Duke power plant

On Friday, Duke Univesity students and other area activists protested the university's consideration of letting Duke Energy install a gas-turbine power plant on campus.
On Friday, Duke Univesity students and other area activists protested the university's consideration of letting Duke Energy install a gas-turbine power plant on campus. Ray Gronberg

With a key report on the project due in a week or so, activists once again gathered on the Duke University campus on Friday to protest the idea of its joining forces with Duke Energy to build a gas-turbine power plant near Wallace Wade Stadium.

Members of the Duke Climate Coalition, the key on-campus student group opposing the project, joined with representatives of a couple of outside organizations to mount the lunchtime demonstration on a chilly, wind-swept Abele Quad. The key point to emerge is that the student group wants Duke University leaders to show there’s an airtight case for thinking they ultimately can fuel the turbine with “biogas” — waste gas from hog farms and landfills.

Not only does the university need to prove that biogas is “actually viable,” technically and economically, it has to address “the environmental justice issues head-on” that’d come with relying on a byproduct of the eastern North Carolina hog industry, said Claire Wang, the sophomore and Angier Duke Scholar who’s president of the Duke Climate Coalition.

Wang added that the hog industry’s base in the state is in areas that are “predominantly low-income people of color,” population-wise.

Her comments came as a special study group organized by Duke’s Campus Sustainability Committee nears the completion of a report to the administration and campus trustees about the project.

Turbine critics believe the panel will endorse building it, and the panel’s chairman, Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Director Tim Profeta, did little to dispel their suspicion during a recent forum. He said the project can help Duke “achieve climate leadership” if it gives the university a lever to prod the electric company into using biogas.

“We’re evaluating whether it’s real, whether it’s time, whether the economics can work,” Profeta said during the March forum. “We have said we’re willing to pay above market for it.”

He added that there’s not currently a market for waste gas, and there won’t be one “unless somebody big comes in and demands it.”

A prior administration report on the project termed the use of biogas in the turbine and Duke’s existing steam boilers a “long-range goal,” and noted that the university, Duke Energy and Google Inc. have been experimenting with the technology at a farm in Yadkin County.

There, a collector feeds a small turbine that supplies the electricity for most of the farm’s hog barns.

As proposed, the Duke campus turbine would essentially be a ground-based jet engine, which would spin a generator to provide electricity for the Duke Energy grid and feed a heat exchanger to create steam for the campus heating and cooling network. It would generate about 21 megawatts of power, and potentially serve as a backup source of electricity for the campus.

The project’s drawn opposition from a number of environmental groups who object to the prospective use of natural gas as fuel given that it’s a greenhouse pollutant. One of them, the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, has threatened to sue and doesn’t consider biogas a suitable alternative fuel.

In addition to questionable economics and technical issues, its use “would do very little to reduce the air and water pollution that have plagued communities near hog farms for so long,” it said in a position paper.

The North Carolina hog industry is centered down east, particularly in Sampson, Duplin, Wayne, Greene and Bladen counties. The region is in fact poor, and some of the counties in it are part of the so-called “Black Belt” where blacks make up a third or more of the population. Historically, farming is the region’s major industry.

The trouble is that the alternatives N.C. WARN and other groups have urged on university officials have drawbacks of their own.

N.C. WARN leaders have signaled that they don’t see a need for another generating plant at all. But campus officials aren’t particularly comfortable with their existing local back-up sources of power for widespread, weather-related power outages, at least not after a campus gas turbine at New Jersey’s Princeton University proved helpful to that institution after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.

Nor are they sold on the idea of a mass deployment of solar energy. They see kilowatt-hour costs for it about double what the university pays Duke Energy, and worry they don’t have enough space for it either. The administration’s October 2016 report seemed to assume the need for about five acres of space for every megawatt of generating capacity, and questioned whether there’s enough rooftop space at Duke to make a big dent in the university’s power needs, much less in its greenhouse gas output.

N.C. WARN’s leader, Jim Warren, said this week his group thinks the university hasn’t “taken solar potential seriously,” and that it’s overestimating the technology’s potential costs.

But N.C. WARN’s own analysis presumes Duke University has both abundant land and finance. Both assumptions are questionable. University leaders have no shortage of budgetary worries, including how to pay for student aid and related programs. And a lot of Duke’s land is Duke Forest, the development of which would be controversial to varying degrees in both Durham and Orange counties.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg