A Delayed Winter Forum: Students Look at Failures in US Energy Access

A short film developed explicitly for the forum featured people in rural communities about 80 miles north of Durham.

When lights burn all night and heat is plentiful on the Duke campus, it can be hard for students to fathom that there are people down the road who lack the money to pay for electricity.  

How that can be true -- and how to rectify the problem -- were topics touched upon Sunday at Duke’s 2017 Winter Forum:  “Power to the People: Tackling Energy Inequality through Clean Energy Solutions.”

“We see a substantial part of the world’s population unable to meet their most basic energy needs,” said Brian Murray, a program director at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and interim director of the Duke University Energy Initiative. Both units cosponsored the annual global issue forum for undergraduates. “Even in our own backyard of Durham, there are people who may have physical access to energy but face great economic hardship in meeting their energy needs. We view it as a moral imperative to provide greater access to affordable, reliable and clean energy for all.” 

About 40 people attended the four-hour event in Gross Hall. It was a much-abbreviated version of the planned three-day forum in January, which was canceled due to snow. Students said they appreciated hearing about energy problems faced by low-income North Carolina residents, especially in Durham.   

“It’s really easy for us to take energy access for granted,” said Claire Wang, a sophomore from Utah who is head of the Duke Climate Coalition. “For us, it’s literally a flip of the switch.”

A panel was moderated by attorney Tatjana Vujic and consisted of Conor Harrison, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina; Libbie Weimer, the independent filmmaker who created the video; and Al Ripley, the director of the  consumer and housing project at the NC Justice Center.

Panelists offered some possible solutions:

  • The state should make solar and wind alternatives available to lower income communities.
  • Companies could invest in renewable forms of energy rather than importing more fossil fuels via pipelines. They could also offer energy savings on replacement heating and furnace to lower-income communities, not just wealthier ones. 
  • North Carolina could use technology to create energy from methane gas, since the state is the second-largest pork producer in the nation.   

The state needs to act with greater urgency, said panel members. “We’re destroying our planet,” said Ripley, who compared the slow pace of change and lack of receptivity in the NC General Assembly to an ambulance carrying a person with a life-threatening emergency to a hospital, where the hospital only served tea.  “We are not doing enough, fast enough.”

Dillon Fernando, a junior and biology major from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, praised the organizers, including the Samuel DuBois Cook Center for Social Equity. They did a very good job of framing energy issues in the context of social identity, such as socio-economic status and race, he said.

“We saw today how these issues intersect,” Fernando said. “Students are passionate about these topics but they get trapped in the Duke bubble. It’s important to remember that here at a prestigious university there are people really close to us who have a starkly different way of life.”  

The Winter Forum is offered every year by the Office of Undergraduate Education in partnership with other Duke organizations.