By Ray Gronberg
DURHAM – Duke University ought to conduct a “bottom-up” review of its energy needs, one open to community groups, before deciding to do anything like allowing a utility to install a gas-turbine power plant on campus, a coalition of environmental and political groups says.
The coalition includes Durham’s People’s Alliance, the city’s single most influential political organization, and weighed in on March 9 via a letter to Duke President Vince Price.
In it, the groups voiced the fear that Duke is approaching a “likely decision point” in May about whether to resume work on the idea of joining forces with Duke Energy to place a “combined heat and power” turbine near Wallace Wade Stadium.
University interest in the project surfaced late in former Duke President Richard Brodhead’s administration but has been on hold for more than a year. The groups behind the letter aren’t assuming the university’s subsequent silence on the matter is a sign that the idea’s been abandoned.
To the contrary, in pointing to May they’re alluding to a month that always crucial for decision-making at Duke because the campus trustees arrive in Durham to meet just ahead of the annual spring commencement ceremony. And they’re unhappy that “no action has yet been taken to engage external stakeholders” in further debate about the project and the underlying reasons for it.
They also want a pledge from Price that Duke will delay a formal vote “past May” to allow for more conversation.
In response, Duke officials didn’t offer that, exactly, but Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld did say that “no action is planned in May or the near future.”
He added that trustees “are briefed on a regular basis,” and that “study and engagement” about the proposal “has taken place on campus and in the community.”
But campus officials said later that they hope “to be in a position to make a decision regarding” a potential fuel source for the turbine this year. They’ll hold a forum on on campus in Penn Pavilion on April 10 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
The proposed power plant is little more than a ground-anchored jet engine. Fueled by some form of natural gas, it would turn a generator to produce electricity for Duke Energy, and via a heat exchanger also create steam for us in the university’s heating and cooling network.
Its prospective use of natural gas is what’s made the project controversial with environmental groups like the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network that oppose the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.
N.C. WARN co-signed the letter along with such organizations as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.