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Duke University takes flak over power plant plan

  • Oct 21, 2016

A proposed collaboration between Duke University and the region's similarly-named electric utility on a new power plant is drawing fire from student groups on campus.

The project, in early stages of the regulatory process, calls for Duke Energy to build a small co-generation plant on campus off Wannamaker Drive, near Wallace Wade Stadium.

Once in operation, the plant would generate electricity for Duke Energy and steam for Duke University. Its core would be a gas turbine, a derivation of the technology used in jet engines.

The turbine's fuel, natural gas, a greenhouse pollutant, is what's drawing objections from groups like the Duke Climate Coalition and, as of this week, the Graduate and Professional Student Council.

Both want the university to suspend work on the project pending a campus review of it that gives students and faculty each a third of the say over the result.

"An energy decision of this magnitude must be preceded by a full, transparent review that includes the voices of the students, faculty and community members who will live with the climate, environmental and public health impacts of this project," said Claire Wang, the climate coalition's president.

But Duke Energy is pushing ahead, this week applying to the N.C. Utilities Commission for a "certificate of public convenience and necessity" that would authorize it to build the plant.

The application reckons that construction could begin as soon as the first quarter of 2017, and variously estimates the plant could be up and running early in 2018 or in the first half of 2019.

It also says the facility would be "the first of its kind" in Duke Energy's network in the Carolinas.

For Duke University, the project has three main advantages.

One is financial: The power company reckons the plant will generate steam less expensively than the university's existing steam plants.

Another is redundancy. The plant's design will allow it to feed the campus electrical grid if there's a widespread power outage of the sort that usually follows a hurricane, blizzard or ice storm.

Duke's hospital has 100-percent backup for such events via diesel generators, but the campus proper isn't nearly as well-protected from a major power failure, said Russell Thompson, the university's utilities and engineering director.

And even diesel generators can fail, either by breaking under load or from running out of fuel because of supply-chain disruptions, Thompson said. He noted that the federal government, from the White House on down, has been prodding power companies and other institutions to put in more backups.

Finally, campus officials reckon that the plant despite its reliance on natural gas will help cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Duke Energy should be able to cut back on the use of a gas- or coal-fired plant in its system that doesn't burn as efficiently, and the university should be able to halve the current usage of gas in its own steam plants, Thompson said.

The university has two steam plants, one on West Campus and the other on East Campus. The steam they produce heats buildings and water, runs dehumidification systems, and sterilizes equipment at the hospital.

Unlike nearby UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke has been able to stop using coal in its steam plants, making the switch early this decade.

UNC was supposed to do likewise by 2020, but officials there confirmed earlier this year that they're going to have trouble meeting that goal because their first plant for a fuel switch at their campus co-gen plant wasn't "technically or financially sound."

At Duke, student groups are questioning the university's math regarding the benefits of the switch and want officials like Thompson to show their work.

Wang said they plan on holding two campus forums in the coming weeks, one in Gross Hall at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 25 and the other in the Duke School of Law on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m.

The Graduate and Professional Student Council's resolution said it wants campus officials to explore "renewable energy and energy-efficiency-based alternatives" to the turbine facility.

But Thompson said the university's already using solar power and made energy-efficiency moves, and is looking to do more along those lines because the administration "has committed to becom[ing] a carbon-neutral campus by 2024."

He added that the proposed co-gen plant is "not an either/or proposition" and fits into the university's overall strategy for meeting carbon-reduction goal.

Technologically, there's little that's cutting-edge about the proposed plant.

Engineers have been attaching generators to jets as long as they've been hanging jets on airplanes, and gas turbines using other fuels are a common source of power and propulsion for ships. Turbine manufacturers like General Electric have adapted them for use on land.

At Duke, the turbine's exhaust would pass through a heat exchanger, there flashing water into steam.

Duke Energy hasn't publicly disclosed the estimated cost of the plant. Its Utilities Commission filing said any post-construction noise impact "will be minimal," and that the general public "should not be impacted" at all.


(c)2016 The Herald-Sun (Durham, N.C.)

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