By John Downey
Student and faculty protests over Duke University’s plan to put a 21-megawatt Duke Energy combined heat-and-power plant on campus appear to have raised doubts about the project’s prospects.
Duke Energy (NYSE:DUK) Carolinas has asked the N.C. Utilities Commission push back a hearing on the proposed $55 million plant from Jan. 24 to early this summer.
The utility and the university announced the combined heat-and-power (CHP) project in May, saying it could cut university emissions by 25%. It would also provide steam heat for university operations at a lower cost than the university can produce it for in its current natural gas boilers.
Duke Carolinas told regulators in its May filing that the university had agreed to buy heat from the plant under a 35-year contract. The utility said the plant would be designed to ensure power supplies to Duke University’s medical center and the university directly if power outages caused the grid feeding the school to fail.
All indications in the early announcements were that the deal was done and only needed regulatory approval to succeed. But it now appears Duke University wants at least to slow the process down in the face of unexpectedly strong objections from students, faculty, environmental groups and members of the community.
In a filing made with the commission late Thursday, the utility says “the university’s administration has indicated that it needs more time to work with university stakeholders” to explain how the plant fits into university plans to reduce campus carbon emissions. The utility says that means “internal sustainability and board of trustees verification processes (at the university) will not be complete by the time of the January 24 .. hearing.”
Duke Carolinas tells the commission it “continues to be very optimistic about the CHP facility.” But that sounds less certain than Duke’s statement three weeks ago that it was “very confident in the project going forward.”
Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless says the project “still makes good economic and environmental sense for the university.” He says Duke believes the evidence should lead the university to the same conclusion and that the administration will go ahead with it.
“But we need to be respectful of our customers’ needs,” he says. “If the university needs more time, we think it makes sense to wait to hold the hearing until it has had that time.”
He says there is no critical time element to building the plant. “A delay of four to six months will not jeopardize the project,” he says.
Duke University has not yet responded to requests for comment on the delay. On Wednesday, Duke President Richard Brodhead wrote an open letter to the campus community, published in the Duke Chronicle, that broadly supported the project. But he stopped well short of committing the university to going through with the planned deal.