Calling on Duke University for more openness on energy plant

By Tom Clark and John Schelp

Guest columnists

Old West Durham neighborhood (OWD) stretches along Duke University's northern border, from East Campus to the foothills of the Medical Center. As close neighbors and official partners, we are once again calling on our friends at Duke to do the right thing for all the stakeholders concerned, this time in making plans for the university's future power needs and the quality of the air that we all breathe here in West Durham.

Last year, the Duke Energy Corporation floated a plan to build a “combined heating and power” (CHP) plant to be located on the campus of the University. In July, the folks at NC WARN, whose offices are in OWD and who make it their business to keep up with the power industry from the perspective of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables, approached university President Richard Brodhead privately to offer comments on, and suggest alternatives to, the Energy company's proposal.

In short, Duke Energy wants to build a plant they say will reduce the University's contribution to greenhouse gas production. Having called in their experts and analyzed the situation from the point of view of opportunity for renewables, NC WARN says that:

-- Any reduction in the University's toxic output would be because the energy company will be doing the polluting as they would own the new plant; in other words, there could be the same amount of toxic gas in the air, it just wouldn't literally be “owned” by the University -- some reduction.

-- The new plant will use fracked gas, and thus actually increase by a huge margin the total greenhouse gas emissions.

-- The plan takes advantage of loopholes in state and federal requirements to avoid using standard pollution controls, thus allowing 10 times as much nitrogen oxide to be emitted as compared to other gas-burning power plants. This gas is doubly dangerous; it damages the lungs both directly on inspiration, and then indirectly, by forming ground-level ozone.

-- All of the energy company's current customers will be paying for a facility that almost exclusively benefits the well-endowed Duke campus and

-- The university will be passing up the chance -- for 35 years or more, the life expectancy of the new facility --to develop its enormous solar power potential at prices lower than it’s paying now.

In December, Duke Energy asked the N.C. State Utilities Commission to put off the required hearings to early summer. The university requested more time after receiving significant alumni, student and public objections to the plan. And that's where we stand now.

Of course, reasonable arguments can usually be made on both sides of an issue like this one. But however it comes out, those arguments should be heard by all the stakeholders. These include anyone potentially affected by the gasses that would spew into the air as a result of these operations; or by the avoidance of such spewing by making the transition to solarizing the campus. Since receiving NC WARN's comprehensive analysis, the Duke administration has abruptly dropped the non-profit and its technical expert -- a Duke Engineering School alumnus -- from the stakeholder loop, without responding to their suggestions.

In this time of climate change, this issue really extends past our modest set of bungalows to include all of Durham and beyond. With so much at stake, many neighbors are troubled that we were never included in this process at all. If this plant is really good for us, why isn't Allen Building proud to share the details with all concerned?

We call on the university administration, as we have in the past and with good effect, to demonstrate the regional, even national and international leadership they usually aspire to and expand their outreach on such matters to a truly complete set of stakeholders -- not just the ones on campus whose paychecks or diplomas they sign.

Duke is in so many ways, a vital and noble municipal citizen that it is easy to forget that at least some of the reason they have the resources to achieve what they have is that, as an educational non-profit they don't pay taxes, and they collect contributions on a tax-advantaged basis. So it isn't right for them to stay behind closed doors to make decisions that so seriously affect the environmental quality of the whole region.

For more information, visit http://www.ncwarn.org/duke-chp/

Tom Clark and John Schelp are long-time residents and activists in Old West Durham.