Duke delays asking trustees for vote on 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.

Plans for a gas-turbine power plant at Duke University ran into another delay Tuesday, with administrators saying they’ll hold off on asking campus trustees to green-light the $55 million project.

The decision, announced by Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, means soon-to-depart Duke President Richard Brodhead’s staff “will not be bringing a proposal forward for approval by the [trustees] in May.”

That likely means future deliberations on the project will unfold after incoming President Vince Price takes over for Brodhead on July 1. The trustees generally meet as a full board only four times a year, twice in the spring semester and twice in the fall.

Tuesday’s announcement coincided with the release of a campus study group’s report advising Duke officials to see to it that the university see to it there’s a “sufficient volumes of biogas” — captured waste gas from hog farms, as opposed to natural gas extracted from wells — to fuel the turbine and make it carbon-netural in its first year in service.

It also should be “fully powered by” biogas within five years, the panel said, adding that “the university [should] not move forward with the plant if these biogas objectives cannot be met.”

Trask stopped short of saying campus officials agree with that. He praised the panel — set up by Duke’s Campus Sustainability Committee — for “producing an important, informed and timely analysis” but said administrators “will carefully review” it as they ponder their next steps.

The study group included four professors from the Nicholas School of the Environment, two from the Pratt School of Engineering and one from the Duke School of Law. Eight people from the Duke staff and seven students also served. Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Director Tim Profeta chaired it.

Ultimately, the group “could not achieve consensus on whether to pursue” construction of the power plant in a joint project with Duke Energy, its report said. The suggested “postponement strategy” is supposed to buy time for the university to “confirm its ability” to secure a biogas supply.

Biogas has emerged as the preferred fuel because its use would burn waste gas from hog farms that would otherwise become a greenhouse pollutant. Natural gas, by contrast, adds to greenhouse emissions for having been removed from deep-underground deposits. The trick with biogas is capturing it. Duke University, Duke Energy and Google Inc. have backed experiments with the technology at a hog farm in Yadkin County.

Profeta and his fellow study-group members urged that the university, in contract talks with Duke Energy, make sure it and not the utility benefits from any renewable-energy market credits from the use of biogas, and that the utility “provide all necessary support” for the use of biogas to run the turbine.

The 21-megawatt turbine is essentially a ground-anchored jet engine. It’d turn a generator to produce electricity, and via a heat exchanger also create steam to heat and cool the university’s buildings.

University officials are interested in part because they see a need for the Durham campus to have another backup source of electricity.

Given “historical information and [the] increasing severity of storm effects precipitated by climate change,” they see “a high level of certainty” of someday having to cope with a potentially catastrophic blackout, the report said, adding that some members of the study group think Duke can cope using its existing backup generators.

Members were, however, dubious that solar power or other alternatives would be as capable as the turbine. Solar in particular “is not currently realistic or feasible” due to existing cost discrepancies and the technology’s land needs, they said.

A previous campus report said solar-generated electricity is about twice as expensive as what the university can buy from the grid, and assumed an array capable of generating 1 megawatt would cover about five acres.

State regulatory reviews of the project have been on hold since January, following a delay request from Duke Energy meant to buy time for the university to complete its in-house debate. After the release of Tuesday’s report, Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless said the company “will continue to work” with the university and respects its need for more time.

“We are not driven by a strict timetable,” Wheeless said. “Duke University needs to address a future energy issue, and we responded with the most viable and cost-effective solution to meet that concern.”

A study-group member who has opposed the project, student Claire Wang, said that while the use of biogas “would certainly be a win for the climate,” Duke also has to address “other environmental and health hazards” that have “a severe and disproportionate impact on ... low-income communities and people of color” living near many of North Carolina’s hog farms.

She and another critic of the project, Jim Warren of the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network, also noted that the study group urged administrators to consult other people more quickly and more openly when they’re considering projects with the potential to emit a lot of greenhouse pollutants.

Warren said his group, also known as N.C. WARN, “applaud[s] the decision to delay” and looks “forward to regaining a constructive dialogue that include the Durham community’s voices as important stakeholders.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg