Commentary: Don’t compromise Duke University’s climate legacy

This May, Duke University revealed its plans to allow Duke Energy to construct and own a new natural gas plant on campus grounds. The 21-megawatt combined heat and power plant would be only the first in a series of gas expansions by the utility. This Duke University plant would be tied to a 35-year steam purchase contract, a yet-to-be-revealed “long-term” land lease, and a promise that Duke Energy will seek to replicate this model on other college campuses.

The two Dukes have attempted to market the proposed plant as an innovative collaboration, but this plant – which has yet to be approved by state regulators – would be neither inventive nor mutually beneficial. Agreeing to house this power plant would bind Duke University to fossil fuels beyond the middle of the century, marking a serious step backward from its climate commitments while Duke Energy enjoys the profits of a grid that is no more climate-friendly than that which currently exists.

Duke University’s President Brodhead has proudly worked to establish Duke as an environmental leader. Under his administration, Duke has pledged “vision, intellect, and high ethical standards” in its Environmental Policy Statement and implemented a bold Climate Action

Plan for carbon neutrality by 2024. Both of these obligations would be violated in this attempt to appease Duke Energy, the corporation that continues to invest in nuclear and fossil fuels and whose lobbyists hinder state renewable energy policies. Despite ample renewable resources in North Carolina (the state ranks third in the nation in installed solar capacity, and its first wind farm will begin operation this year), Duke Energy plans for renewables to make up a mere 4% of its energy mix in 2030 – a far cry from the climate action that the university wants, the company claims, and the planet needs.

With this proposed plant, President Brodhead has the opportunity to secure his legacy as a climate leader by refusing to loan out his campus for Duke Energy’s fossil fuel expansion and advocating instead for university access to truly clean renewable energy.

The past decade has revealed that powering the grid with renewables is no longer an impossibility, but an inevitability. The cost of solar has plummeted over 70% since 2006, and the price of wind has reached all-time lows, becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels in many regions. Multiple studies have shown that renewable energy penetrations of 80-100% are feasible using existing technology. With these revolutionary developments, new long-term investments into fossil fuels, such as the proposed Duke plant, are neither economically nor environmentally sound.

It is a fact that combined heat and power plants are more efficient than existing plants. It is a fact that natural gas combusts more cleanly than coal. However, it is a mistake to treat these two statements as the complete truth. Natural gas is plagued with a systemic problem that completely negates the benefit of a cleaner burn: the prevalence of methane leaks that release a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Studies have consistently found methane leakage in excess of government estimates, particularly in fracked gas, which accounts for over 40% of all gas production and which leaks up to 12% of total production across its life cycle. Furthermore, because methane has a much larger immediate impact on global temperatures than carbon dioxide, preventing methane emissions is critical for climate change mitigation. Certainly, there is some debate about the precise leakage rate due to the relative newness of the natural gas boom. However, this scientific uncertainty is all the more reason to back out of this 35-year commitment to gas, rather than jump in blindly.

Duke University has a choice to make. It can either choose to carry out Duke Energy’s fossil fuel-laden agenda, or it can choose to change the agenda itself. Climate change cannot be solved with the same fossil fuels that caused the problem to begin with. Renewable energy is the only viable solution, and it is toward this solution that the university and the utility must place their efforts.

Duke University and President Brodhead must remember where their commitment lies: with the students and alumni of the university, not with the corporation that shares its name. 35 years from now, when current students will have taken the place of current university administrators, let us not regret a misplaced energy investment and a broken environmental promise. President Brodhead must act today to preserve his climate legacy and put an end to this proposed natural gas plant.

Claire Wang is the President of Duke Climate Coalition, the student group leading action and advocacy on climate-related issues. She is an Angier B. Duke Memorial Scholar and will graduate from Duke University in 2019.

Dr. George M. Woodwell is the Director Emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center, a Duke graduate alumnus, and a long-time member of the Board of Visitors of Duke University’s Nicholas School of Environment.

4 thoughts on “Commentary: Don’t compromise Duke University’s climate legacy

  1. Shame on Duke University! What is the point of having an “elite” university, when it fails to act and lead on the most challenging problems that the humanity now faces? Duke University had a choice, go with renewable energy that does not emit carbon, and continue to be a thought and action leader, or install natural gas plan, go penny pinching to save few cents off the electric bill, to add to its billion dollar endowment. Such a disgrace, that the university chose the latter, while it touts to having the “best environmental” program!! Shame on you, Duke admninistrators !

    • Andy: The university already burns natural gas on campus for its thermal needs. This project will help them burn less and lower their overall carbon footprint. They need 75,000 pounds per hour of steam for the campus. That’s not a solar plant.

      Are you fighting for the status quo?

  2. The proposed plant is not a progressive approach to climate neutrality, but a continuation of the university’s dependence on fossil fuels for nearly half a century. The future of renewables is promising – just last year, solar and wind accounted for over two thirds of new national energy capacity in 2015, double the amount of new natural gas capacity. Investing in this plant might allow for a short-term reduction in the gas the university burns itself, but it also prevents the university from exploring renewable options in the future.

    As a Duke student in the Class of 2017, I urge the university to reassess this proposed plant and commit to being a global leader in the environment by investing in truly clean climate solutions.