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Duke Energy requests delay on power plant at Duke University

Duke Energy’s plan to put a plant at Duke University might be powering down—at least for a little while.

The energy company is seeking a delay until early summer for its proposal to put a 21-megawatt combined heating and power plant at Duke University after pushback from the public. Duke Energy said the plant will reduce its carbon footprint and provide additional backup power in case of a power emergency.

Randy Wheeless, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, said the energy company is still optimistic about the project.

“But I think when you look at the needs of the university this project makes a lot of sense and no one is really offering a better alternative," he said.

Some of the controversy was over whether or not the plant will cut or increase greenhouse gas emissions. Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, a climate justice nonprofit organization, said Duke Energy’s claim that the plant will cut emissions is misleading.

“The actual use of gas on the campus would increase 61 percent from current amounts and thus the greenhouse emissions would also increase 61 percent,” he said. “To pretend that somehow it makes a difference  — Duke Energy would be owning the plant and burning the gas on campus for the campus — that somehow that should alleviate the university's responsibility just doesn’t pass the straight face test.”

Duke University President Richard Brodhead said in an open letter to The Duke Chronicle the university is pursuing the plant because of its effectiveness.

"By using the waste heat produced by electrical generation to create the necessary steam and hot water our campus buildings demand, the (combined heating and power) plant will reduce fuel consumption and emissions, both on campus and throughout the Duke Energy system …” Brodhead said. 

Wheeless said he believes the protests are more about dislike of Duke Energy and natural gas than about the plant itself.

“But you have to think the university was already using natural gas. Natural gas is part of the growing energy mix of this nation. It's one of the fastest growing energy fuels being used, especially because so much comes from America," he said.

Wheeless said campuses across the country use these types of plants, including UNC-Chapel Hill. He said UNC's plant is powered by natural gas and coal.

“Right now the price of natural gas is low," he said. "All projections say it will remain low. It's probably the most cost effective fuel out there, more effective than coal and in fact, in some parts of the nation, it is better than nuclear power."

Warren said Duke University should move to the use of battery or solar power instead of utilizing natural gas, which may be collected using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“The overarching concern is that (the plant) would perpetuate the fracked gas boom at the expense of the climate crisis …” Warren said. “The most innovative and a good way they should (proceed) is adding battery storage by itself or combined with PV (photovoltaic) solar.”

Wheeless said solar or battery power would not adequately address the university’s needs.

“We are very familiar with solar and battery technology, which sometimes gets talked about, but when you look at the energy needs of the university and that 24/7 need for hot water and heat solar and a battery is just not going to do it.”


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