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How UNC has worked toward ending coal use since abandoning coal-free 2020

UNC Coal Plant

As UNC's campus moves toward the end of the year and starts to show signs of autumn, some environmental activists are reminded of a long-abandoned University plan to be coal-free by 2020. 

While the coal-free by 2020 initiative has been deserted, the University is now taking slower, more financially pragmatic steps to reduce emissions. Some activists are not satisfied and want faster action from UNC.

Former Chancellor Holden Thorp, who held office from 2008 to 2013, pledged to move away from coal, including the on-campus coal plant on Cameron Avenue that powers much of the University.

“I was (very) excited about the possibility of seeing what we could do with the coal plant,” Thorp said. 

Nate Knuffman, UNC's deputy vice chancellor for finance and operation, said in an email that Thorpe was informed in 2012 that the goal was not feasible due to technological and financial restrictions. 

When it became clear that abandoning coal by 2020 was not possible, the University announced a plan at a Board of Trustees meeting in January 2016 to instead work toward greenhouse gas neutrality.

The January 2016 plan was introduced during former Chancellor Carol Folt’s administration and centered on the Three Zeros Campaign, which included working toward net zero water use, zero waste and net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, the University is trying to become more environmental — but in a feasible, affordable way, Knuffman said.  

“We are highly committed to ending the use of coal,” Knuffman said.

He said there is a construction project underway at the coal plant that is nearing completion. It will reduce coal usage by a third and cause the plant to burn 50 percent natural gas at a minimum. 

Knuffman said the technology needed to completely move away from coal was costly and unproven. UNC is still paying for the plant, and it won’t have the funds to completely transition it to clean energy until the plant is paid off. 

“The circulating fluidized beds that are in that plant were purchased not very long before I became chancellor, so they’re still, even now, very, very new,” Thorpe said. “We had just dropped a huge amount of money on those reactors and any solution we came up with had to be one that allowed us to use those same reactors.”

Knuffman said the University is developing a plan to move completely away from coal in a feasible timeframe and budget and that UNC is making progress toward greenhouse gas neutrality. 

“We have seen an overall reduction of 18 percent in Greenhouse Gas Emissions since 2007,” Knuffman said in the email.

While UNC administration is settling on a pragmatic environmental approach, some activists are not satisfied with the slower shift to cleaner energy.

Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League community organizer Jenn Galler is based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, but has worked on the UNC coal plant case. She said there is a local chapter of BREDL called Chapel Hill Organization for Clean Energy that meets monthly.

“We want clean, sustainable, renewable energy,” Galler said. “That would look like solar, wind, primarily those two things.”

Galler said the Organization has been unable to make much headway with the University. 

For now, the organization holds weekly protests at the coal plant, on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

“It’s a smaller group led by citizens of Chapel Hill who really see the need for it to close down or shut down and switch to a cleaner method,” Galler said.


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