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Community frustrated with UNC's renewal of its coal plant over sustainable alternatives

Coal Plant Town Council Meeting

Citizens of Chapel Hill gather to discuss the topic of the coal plant implementation in town and its effect on UNC. "Don't let UNC drag it's feet," coming from the words of John Wagner speaking on the issue at Chapel Hill's Town Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2019. 

Perrin de Jong spent his childhood in Chapel Hill exploring forests, wading through creeks and laying in a hospital bed trying to breathe. He didn’t understand why his asthma in the 1990s was so debilitating, so frequent — he certainly didn’t know a new UNC coal generation plant opened just miles away.

According to a 2012 Environmental Health Perspectives study, there were significant increases in estimated rates of hospitalization for various respiratory distress. 

Hospitalization for asthma, acute respiratory infection and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease increased by 11 percent, 15 percent and 17 percent, respectively, among individuals living in the same zip code as a fuel-fired power plant in New York.

In 2010, former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp pledged the University would cease existing coal generation operations by 2020.

Now, the University is seeking a five-year renewal to their permit for the Cameron Avenue plant with no clear end to coal generation in sight.

At a Chapel Hill Town Council meeting on Feb. 13, Brad Ives, UNC associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises, said renewing the Cogen plant’s permit is essential to the energy needs of the University because hospitals and laboratories depend on it.

As an attorney with Asheville’s Center for Biological Diversity, de Jong is advocating for stricter environmental permit regulations for UNC’s Cogen plant.

“If we are stuck indefinitely with this archaic dinosaur, fossil-fuel facility, then we want it to be as protective of public health and the environment as possible,” he said. “Let’s make them obtain the most protective possible permit through the (Division of Air Quality).”

Through air-modeling research, the Center for Biological research found that UNC’s permit through the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality allows the University to emit four to six times more nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide than the limit allows under the Clean Air Act.

His organization’s findings contrast the N.C. Division of Air Quality’s measurements in 2016, which found the Cameron Avenue plant complied with emission regulations. The same DAQ report, however, found hazardous air pollutants at the plant were over 58 percent higher in 2016 than in 2012 with 12.13 tons emitted.

Ives said the University aims to be carbon-neutral by 2050. Currently, the Cogen plant emits 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions on campus with purchased electricity emitting 23 percent, according to Ives.

He said a 2019 burner modification to the Cogen plant is expected to increase the plant’s usage of natural gas and ultimately reduce coal usage by one-third by the end of 2019.

“The plant is one of the cleanest, most efficient plants of its type in the world,” he said.

Lifelong resident of Chapel Hill John Wagner expressed disappointment in Ives’ presentation to the council and asked the council to consider utilizing renewable energy.

“The staff and students at UNC deserve to have UNC stop burning coal,” he said. “Don’t let UNC drag its feet. This is 2019 — there are alternatives.”

Ives said students urge him every year to consider implementing solar energy on campus, but he said it would be an ineffective solution for UNC’s energy requirements.

“Every year I’ll have students come in and say ‘Why don’t we put solar panels on all the buildings on campus? It’ll solve all our energy problems.' We finally had a student-group study, and they found that solar panels would generate about 1 percent of our existing energy needs,” he said.

Olivia James, communications manager for campus enterprises, said its team confirmed that solar energy would meet .6 to .75 percent of the University's energy need, but the report has not been published.

Chapel Hill resident Lou Hutchby said she was old enough to remember her mother speak of “horse-and-buggy” days. She expressed frustration in the University’s unwillingness to progress.

“What are you going to expect Brad Ives to do in his position to get UNC off of the coal power plant?” Hutchby asked the council. “Think about it please. We need you, and our great-grandchildren need you.”

The University's current permit expires in 2021, and there's no clear timeline on how the council will proceed.

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