In 2010, former Chancellor Holden Thorp announced that UNC would be coal-free by 2020. Now, that goal has no set end date. UNC is focusing on becoming greenhouse-gas neutral by 2050.
“The whole country has to become zero emissions by 2050 — not just UNC — and we should be doing it first, not last,” UNC biology professor John Bruno said.
The plant, which heats and powers 175 buildings, including UNC Hospitals, has 75 to 80 employees and has been around since 1940. It provided electricity for both Chapel Hill and Carrboro until 1976, when it was sold to Duke Energy. Since then, the plant has just served UNC.
In 2016, 72 percent of the plant’s emissions were from coal, while the rest were from natural gas and oil.
Gloria Liu, co-chair of the UNC Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, said the school hasn’t found a substitute that is as efficient as coal.
“We sort of also know that because we have this (cogeneration) plant on campus, it’s never really going to get to the point that renewable energy is going to replace the electricity produced by the plant, because it’s very cheap and very efficient in producing it,” she said. “However, this doesn’t mean that we should stop bringing more renewable energy projects on campus.”
But not everyone believes that UNC should have a coal plant. Bruno said the plant is terrible.
“In general, the whole country, the whole world, should be moving away from coal and other forms of petroleum-based energy,” he said. “As a leader within the state and across the country, I think it’s really important that UNC do away with our coal plant and really move to a 100 percent renewable-based energy for the whole campus.”
He said if coal use doesn’t stop in the next 10 to 15 years, there will be a global 2 degree Celsius temperature increase.
Bruno is part of the Carolina Climate Change Scientist, a group of UNC faculty that conducts interdisciplinary climate change research. He said the group has found that a number of universities and businesses have vowed to meet the Paris agreement regardless of what the federal government does. Chancellor Carol Folt is not among them, and the group is writing a petition that asks her to follow the Paris climate agreement.
Liu said the plant can supply the school with up to one-third of its electricity.
“You can’t stop losing electricity all at once, so the goal is not to find material that will immediately substitute coal, but instead find material that will continuously lessen the amount of it,” Liu said.
Phil Barner, director of energy services, said UNC has been looking for alternate fuels since 2007 and has been burning natural gases for 45 years.
“The energy demands of a tier-one research campus like what we have here in North Carolina are quite high,” Barner said. “It’s a daunting task to try to get something that does reduce our carbon footprint as well as provide a better reasonable cost.”
Liu said the plant is one of the most efficiently run in the country and comes from mines that don’t practice mountaintop removal. She said many other campuses don’t have power plants and that UNC has an advantage because the plant makes electricity cheaper.
“The steam that the generation plant produce really help UNC hospitals and labs and they save campus a lot of money,” she said.
Sophomore Delancy Allred said from a school like UNC, you expect there to be progressive change for a method that’s less harmful to the environment.
“It’s hard to make the change but if other universities are doing it, we should study more of the ways they did it and see how they did it financially,” she said.
Bruno said UNC should give up its energy independence and use renewable or nuclear energy.
“We should be the leader as the biggest most important educational and research institution of the state,” he said.