Now, Chandler is only tentatively hopeful the University will uphold this commitment.
“The idealistic side of me says that when a large institution makes a commitment publicly, and receives national approval, they should honor that commitment,” said Chandler, who studies environmental policy. “But the rational side of me knows there are budget constraints that make this seem like a frivolous cost for the University.”
As part of Thorp’s commitment, the University is supposed to be firing 20 percent biomass by 2015. Due to complications in finding a supplier of torrefied wood bricks — the coal substitute preferred by UNC Energy Services — the University is likely to miss that deadline.
“Because of the delay in the infrastructure development, that is pretty much unlikely to happen,” said Phil Barner, director of UNC Energy Services.
Chandler worries the 2015 interim deadline is overlooked because of the hype regarding the coal-free 2020 deadline.
The University’s cogeneration plant on West Cameron Avenue houses two coal-burning units that burn up to 600 tons of coal each day during the winter. In order to burn 20 percent torrefied wood pellets, the plant needs 26,000 tons of the pellets per year.
The University might have to produce its own supply of torrefied wood pellets, Barner said as he made his way through the labyrinth of equipment at the cogeneration facility.
“We have considered creating our own supply, but there are issues with that that we have to work through,” Barner said over the noise of the machinery. “We don’t have space on our site, and it would have to be somewhere along a rail line that leads to the facility. But then, building a plant off-site is problematic in terms of ownership.”
A new facility, if Energy Services determines that is the best option, is years down the line and could possibly push the 2020 deadline back as well.
“A new facility is a big commitment and has a lot of costs associated with it,” Chandler said. “I realize it might not be a big issue in their minds when there are so many budget constraints and the system as it is produces the energy they need when they need it.”
One of the frustrations for activists has been the lack of information available on the status of the switch to biomass.
“They haven’t been in contact with us at all, and I haven’t heard anything since they announced they had tested the torrefied wood pellets and found they could work in the plant,” Chandler said. “They haven’t put out a report since 2010, which is interesting considering their deadline is next year.”
In 2010, the Alternative Energy Analysis found that converting to 20 percent torrefied wood bricks would reduce emissions by 20 percent, require $2 million in upgrades and cost the University $2.5 to $3 million per year.
In 2013, the Campus Sustainability Report acknowledged the coal-free commitment, but did not outline the progress of the initiative.
Though the commitment originated under Thorp, Chancellor Carol Folt said she supports the University’s transition to sustainable energy.
“Developing a sustainable plan for energy is one of the vital issues of our time,” Folt said in a statement to The Daily Tar Heel. “I’m proud of our students and the entire campus community for their thoroughness and hard work on this issue, and I’m committed to continuing to move Carolina forward to a sustainable energy future.”
Though the initiative is on hold until a steady supplier is secured, Chandler hopes students and faculty won’t forget about the importance of reducing coal use.
“This is climate change, one of the most pressing issues in the developed nations at this point,” Chandler said. “It deserves attention.”