By Ray Gronberg
A local environmental group has weighed in against the idea of equipping the Duke University campus with a gas-turbine power plant, arguing the institution’s leaders should instead look to solar energy and other sources.
The intervention this week by the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network – also known as N.C. WARN – was on one level surprising because the group just three years ago issued a position paper supporting comparable projects.
But the group, originally founded to oppose waste incineration and nuclear-power development, has morphed over the years into an opponent of pretty much anything the state’s primary electric utility, Duke Energy, wants to do.
Its executive director, Jim Warren, wrote Duke University President Richard Brodhead on Monday to say the school’s been “misled by” the power company and faces “escalating controversy for years to come” if it allows the gas-turbine installation.
The proposed power plant would use a turbine – essentially a ground-based jet engine – fueled by natural gas to generate electricity for the Duke Energy grid.
The turbine’s exhaust would flow into a heat exchanger, there flashing water into steam to heat water and air for the university’s buildings. The 21-megawatt co-generation plant would also be able to function as a backup power source for the campus should weather or some other emergency take down the Duke Energy grid.
Plans Duke Energy recently filed with the N.C. Utilities Commission show the company wants to build the $55 million plant on campus off Wannamaker Drive, near Wallace Wade Stadium.
The company variously reckons the facility could be up and running early in 2018 or the first half of 2019.
N.C. WARN’s objections center on the plant’s fuel, as natural gas is a greenhouse pollutant implicated as a source of global warming.
It further questioned the need for the project, given existing backups, and the equity of reinforcing the electrical network of a private university via a project funded by entire Duke Energy rate base.
The group reckons the plant, because of operational constraints, would add only 8 megawatts of backup generating capacity to a campus that already has 13 megawatts of backup diesel generators.
It also figures the university normally needs 80 megawatts at peak load.
For running continuously, the turbine inherently would be a bigger polluter than diesel generators that Duke University only fires up in an emergency, Warren’s group said.
The university can’t get rid of the diesels because state rules require them for its hospital. Using the turbine as a backup generator for dorms and other buildings “raises basic issues of fairness” given that it’d likely occur while “neighboring Duke Energy customers are without power,” N.C. WARN said.
Warren’s organization more broadly argues that Duke Energy’s quest for more generating capacity serves only the company own profit motive, thanks to the underlying regulatory structure of the utility industry.
It thinks the company has too much surplus capacity, reckoning it operates with “19 percent more supply than needed to serve its customers even during peak usage.”
Federal regulations require a 7 percent reserve and a common industry guideline suggests 15 percent, the group said, begging the question of whether any of those margins are adequate in a fast-growing state vulnerable to ice storms, hurricanes and other disasters.
N.C. WARN’s position paper on the Duke University project acknowledged that it has previously favored expanded use of co-generation, but said what Duke Energy now proposes “does not represent the kind of implementation” it’s ever supported.
That appeared to contradict the text of its 2013 position paper on co-generation, which said even gas-fired co-gen plants “are an energy efficiency technology that greatly reduces the amount of energy used and wasted.”
The 2013 paper signaled a preference for retrofits to capture “waste heat” from existing boilers and generators, but also said co-generation “can be installed as a new generating system.”
It further said North Carolina “is host to a large industrial sector and a large number of universities, community colleges and hospitals” that are “ideal” for co-generation projects. The group estimated that widespread adoption could allow Duke Energy to retire or avoid building up to 10 large-scale, centralized coal, gas or nuclear power plants.
Duke Energy thus “has a duty to take advantage of distributed [co-generation] as an investment opportunity that will prove beneficial to the corporation and, more importantly, to the people of the state,” the 2013 paper, co-signed by Warren, said.
The obvious conflict drew a tart response Wednesday from Randy Wheeless, a Duke Energy spokesman.
“I find that pretty hilarious,” Wheeless said.