Public Forum Addresses Benefits of Proposed Power Plant

Students, faculty and staff discuss potential partnership with Duke Energy

Faculty, staff and students were a part of a panel discussion about a proposed combined heat and power plant that could be built on Duke's campus.
Faculty, staff and students were a part of a panel discussion about a proposed combined heat and power plant that could be built on Duke's campus.

Duke community members gathered Tuesday to discuss a proposed natural gas combined heat and power facility that could be built on West Campus to further reduce carbon emissions on campus and in North Carolina.

The public forum offered stakeholders the opportunity to share details about the proposal to partner with Duke Energy to build and operate the 21-megawatt plant. Among the goals of the project, subject to approval by the North Carolina Utilities Commission, is to reduce fossil fuel emissions, help move Duke toward its goal of becoming carbon neutral and provide contingencies for the university and health system in the event of a catastrophic event that would damage Duke’s power grid.

“In the utility business, reliability is the number one thing,” said Russell Thompson, director of utilities and engineering services for Duke’s Facilities Management Department. “All the people on campus are doing great things and you expect to have power and heat and cooling all the time. Patients expect that when they come here – we’ve got to make sure we’re up 100 percent of the time.”

The facility, which would be built, owned and operated by Duke Energy, would burn natural gas to produce electricity, but unlike other power plants, the heat generated is captured and put to productive use on campus to heat buildings and provide steam – reducing the demand from Duke’s two steam plants on campus.

During the panel discussion, faculty and staff pointed out the increasing commonality of combined heat and power facilities across the country, especially in the wake of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, one of the most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history. The Department of Energy has set targets of increasing the number of such plants across the country by 50 percent over 10 years because they would be more resilient for energy infrastructure, noted Casey Collins, energy manager with Facilities Management.

Among the environmental benefits, the plant could enable Duke to burn 50 percent less natural gas than existing steam plants, and it is estimated to reduce Duke’s emissions by 18 percent while saving about $2 million annually.

Questions raised by panelists and audience members focused on increasing inclusion of more Duke community members in discussions with Duke Energy, why such a plant was necessary, and the carbon accounting of expected plant emissions. Renewable alternatives, such as solar power, were also brought up, and the viability of those options on campus, as well as the potential future use of biogas. Discussions will continue between faculty and staff based on suggested alternative ways to count emissions from the plant and what kind of reduction impact Duke could claim from them.

Tallman Trask III, Duke’s executive vice president, emphasized that an announcement about Duke’s potential partnership with Duke Energy in May wasn’t a binding commitment to building the plant. Duke Energy must get approval from the state’s utility commission and if the company gets the authority to build such a plant, Duke would then have conversations about whether or not it would enter into a contract with the company. Most important, he added, is the need for a reliable source of energy for buildings across campus, especially the health system. Duke hospitals currently rely on diesel generators for a backup source should power fail.

“It does protect patients in the hospital where multiple backup strategies are useful for us because we can’t afford to lose electricity in the hospital,” Trask said.

Next steps for the project are currently on hold as the North Carolina Utility Commission reviews the proposal. For more information about the proposed combined heat and power plant, visit this website.