Ways Forward for Duke on Climate Neutrality

Potential for powering steam plants with biogas from swine farms discussed at recent forum

Members of the Duke and Durham community listen to presentations at Tuesday night's public forum.
Members of the Duke and Durham community listen to presentations at Tuesday night's public forum.

Duke University has made progress toward its commitment of becoming climate neutral by 2024, but there are still major steps to be taken.

The most promising of steps, fueling on-campus steam plants with directed biogas from North Carolina swine farms, was a topic of discussion at Tuesday night’s public forum on Duke’s climate goals.

“We remain committed to 2024,” Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III told the audience of around 50 Duke and Durham community members at Penn Pavilion. “… It’s going to be very hard for us to get there without making at least one more big move.”

Since announcing its climate neutrality goal in 2007, Duke has lowered its campus greenhouse gas emissions by 24 percent. It’s also embraced energy efficiency in new and existing buildings. While Duke’s building footprint has increased by 20 percent in the last decade, energy use has only grown by 1 percent.

According to Casey Collins, energy manager for Duke Facilities Management, advances in energy efficiency won’t be enough to make Duke climate neutral, so addressing where Duke draws its energy is a logical next step.

Collins said regulatory hurdles currently make meeting Duke’s energy needs through solar power difficult. While Duke is building solar energy systems on campus, they’re not enough to make a meaningful impact in Duke’s energy portfolio, given the scale of campus energy use.

“If we were able to cover every single rooftop that was feasibly available for solar power, we would be able to supply probably less than four percent of our annual energy needs,” Collins said.

Since 2009, Duke has worked to generate carbon offsets and electricity from swine waste. In 2010, Duke built a full-scale system at Yadkinville’s Loyd Ray Farms which captures and destroys methane – a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide – to create electricity.  The project also generates carbon offsets for the University and Google.

Instead of simply taking credit for the methane destroyed in the process of making electricity, Duke is now looking into the possibility of buying enough biogas to displace the amount of conventional natural gas that powers its two on-campus steam plants.

“Our annual fuel needs could be met by just a handful of farms with digestion capabilities,” Collins said.

Under this plan, the university also could earn enough carbon offset credits to go beyond its goal of climate neutrality.

Duke’s demand for biogas would result in outfitting farms with anaerobic digesters, which not only would mitigate the methane they emit, but also reduce odor and control pathogens.  Duke’s purchase likely would create enough demand to spur significant development in the biogas market in North Carolina, which is the nation’s second-largest pork producing state.

“Duke is in [a] great position to get this moving,” said Jeff Vincent, Dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment. “We’re in a state where there is a lot of potential and I think this is an opportunity for Duke to provide leadership on a globally important issue.”

The main concern voiced by audience members at the forum was how the potential growth of a biogas industry would affect rural communities in eastern North Carolina, home to most of the state’s swine farms.

Tanja Vujic, Duke’s director of biogas strategy, pointed to Duke’s outreach to the North Carolina Conservation Network and East Carolina University, aimed at soliciting input from members of affected communities and doing other outreach.

In addition to more public forums planned for the coming months, there’s also a team of Duke faculty members being formed to provide advice to the administration on community engagement. 

“The university can lead, by not just focusing on reducing emissions but by emphasizing things that catalyze change outside the university,” said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

For more information on how biogas could figure into Duke's energy future, here's a helpful set of FAQs. Below is a video of Tuesday night's forum.