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Students, green groups mount challenge to Duke Energy’s $55M Duke University project — Charlotte Business Journal

By John Downey

Environmental opposition is growing to a proposed combined heat-and-power project that Duke University and Duke Energy have trumpeted as a clean and energy efficient alternative for the university.

Duke Energy says the 21-megawatt natural gas plant it wants to build will reduce overall carbon emissions, providing steam power for the school and electricity for the grid.

The university says the project advances its own sustainability goals and “will actually reduce the burning of fossil fuels in North Carolina.”

Opponents simply don’t believe it. They contend claims of reduced carbon are misleading. They worry the project will just expand the use of fossil fuels. And some complain the university has railroaded this project through without involving students, faculty and the local community.

“The fact that a university with premier energy and environmental institutes did not make any effort to consult the students and faculty who devote their studies and their careers to these issues is a travesty of legitimate decision-making,” says Clair Wang, student organization officer for the two year old Duke Climate Coalition.

Established groups

Wang also disputes the university contention that the plant would reduce energy-related carbon emissions at the campus by 24%. “If emissions from the power plant and the climate impact of methane leaks (from gas production and transport) are taken into account, the overall emissions reduction figure is 2-4%, according to calculations by (faculty at the) Nicholas School of the Environment,” she says.

Faculty, alumni and local community activists have joined the coalition and other student groups in objecting to the project.

And established environmental groups have also jumped in. The Natural Resources Defense Council has been active in the opposition. Durham-based NC WARN, an advocacy group and constant Duke Energy critic, has asked the N.C. Utilities Commission to hold hearings on the $55 million, echoing the requests of a number people in the university community.

The growing opposition to the project, first announced as students were leaving campus last May, led the university administration to produce a 28-page white paper last month defending its decision.

Walking back

And university officials appeared to be walking back their support of the project last week.

Southeast Energy News reports that Tallman Trask, executive vice president of the university, expressed reservations about the plant during a 90-minute forum.

“We are not determined to do this deal,” Southeast quotes Trask as telling students.

“We are determined to look at it, because in one form it’s very interesting and potentially transformative,” he went on. “In another form, we’re not interested. Right now I think it’s 50-50 that we’ll ever get there.”

But the university has since released a statement from Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, putting a more positive spin on the plan.

“We believe the project will reduce carbon emissions for the university and the state, enhance energy security and reliability for the campus and save money,” Schoenfeld says.

‘Very confident’

Schoenfeld notes the proposal may change as it goes through the process of regulatory approval. “We are working to resolve the pending issues and remain hopeful that at the end of this process, with all of the outcomes positive, that the project goes forward,” he concludes.

Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless says the utility stands by the project. He defends the calculations that the plant would reduce overall emissions at the university and in the state.

“We are still very confident in the project going forward,” he said. “The technology is sound.”

He also criticized NC WARN, noting that less than three years ago the organization published its own evaluation supporting combined heat-and-power projects. It criticized the utility for not taking advantage of the technology.

“They were for it until it had Duke Energy’s name attached to it,” he says.

New fossil plants

Jim Warren, NC WARN’s executive director, says there is no contradiction in his group’s position.

He says it supports such projects that use existing steam plants to improve energy efficiency and avoid the need for new power plant construction. But he says Duke has turned the technology into an excuse for building new fossil fuel plants. Warren says the world cannot afford such projects when, he says, the impacts of climate change are becoming acute.

And he contends that renewable energy options such as solar power are becoming more attractive and should be pursued ahead of building any new fossil generation.

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