Duke researchers warn of methane’s dangers, while the university presses for a new natural gas plant

By: - March 31, 2017 12:26 pm

The proposed combined heat and power plant at Duke University would be fueled by natural gas for at least 10 years. (Illustration: Duke University)

The scientists who work on climate issues at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University belong to an esteemed crowd. Their studies on the environmental, economic and public health perils of fracked natural gas have been featured in major peer-reviewed journals. Their findings on the role of methane leaks from natural gas in harming human health and driving climate change have earned the school scientific renown.

Air pollution linked to methane, among other so-called “short-lived” pollutants, “is literally killing people,” Drew T. Shindell, professor of climate sciences, testified before Congress in 2014. “It is the leading environmental cause of premature death,” leading to more than seven million each year worldwide.

And yet Duke University is proposing to build a $55 million, 21-megawatt natural gas plant on West Campus, near Towerview  and Wannamaker drives, a little more than a half-mile from the Nicholas School. Duke Energy would own and operate the plant, which is expected to last 35 years.

And while it would use cleaner and more efficient technology, “combined heat and power” or CHP, for short, the plant’s fuel source would be natural gas, piped in from fracking operations out of state. These are the same kind of fracking operations that can pollute drinking water wells with methane gas, as well as leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, further driving climate change.

“We may not reach full consensus on the proposal,” Tim Profeta, director of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, told a crowd at a public meeting earlier this week. Profeta is also the co-chair of the Campus Sustainability Committee. “There is a full consensus on minimizing climate change. It’s an institutional priority.”

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations at Duke University, said the proposal was presented to the Campus Sustainability Committee late last spring. The formal review process didn’t begin until students and faculty had returned for the fall semester.

But some students and faculty see the proposed plant — even an efficient one like a CHP — not as a solution, but a contributor to the problem of climate change. Moreover ordinary Durhamites, who will bear a portion of the plant’s cost through their monthly electric bills, have been largely excluded from the discussion. They are also outraged by the lack of transparency in the months’-long process, as well as what they see as the university’s hypocrisy in proposing the plant.

Students, faculty and staff participated in public forums on-campus, but the university conducted no targeted outreach to the Durham residents.

“This is a cold and corporate approach toward Duke University’s neighbors,” said Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, an environmental group based in Durham. He insinuated that the university could face legal action over the proposal. “This will result in a multi-year street battle.”


The Duke Energy Hub, a “collaborative learning space” is on the first floor of the university’s Gross Hall. The hub, which is built and furnished like a sunken living room, is right outside the Ahmadieh Family Auditorium, where the university held a raucous public meeting last Monday night about the proposed plant.

The university buys nearly all of its electricity from the grid, equivalent to the energy consumption of 16,200 homes each year. It also produces its own steam, hot water and chilled water.

The new combined heat and power plant would still be more efficient than a traditional natural gas plant. It would capture the heat that would otherwise be wasted in electricity generation and use it to power campus buildings. Such a plant is necessary, Duke University officials say, to enhance the resiliency of the campus grid, Profeta said. It would also buttress the backup energy needs of Duke Medical Center, which relies on diesel-powered generators in case of a major power failure.

As the primary provider of specialty care in the region, Duke Medical Center has to be prepared for all types of disruptions and disasters, man-made or naturally occurring, Schoenfeld said. “This is, literally, a matter of life and death. We should not be taking chances with it.”

“We want to minimize the impact through the lowest-emitting technology with the greatest reliability as possible,” Profeta said.

The need for power is understandable for a campus with 300 buildings and more under construction. The CHP, Schoenfeld said, has been a part of the university’s long-term energy strategy and climate action plan. That plan sets a goal of carbon neutrality by 2024. And since 2007, it has reduced its total greenhouses emissions by 23 percent, through solar, efficiency and conservation.

Those efforts might be admirable, but But environmental advocates want the university to steer clear of natural gas, and instead reinforce its commitment to renewable energy. Considering the climate crisis, more methane from natural gas (and livestock) only pushes the world farther over the tipping point. And considering the Trump administration’s recent rollback of regulations on coal and natural gas, it’s incumbent upon institutions, communities and even private citizens to reduce their energy consumption that comes from fossil fuels.

Just this week, scientists from three countries, including the U.S., announced that climate change is altering the planet-scale jet stream, which, in turn, controls weather patterns. As the planet warms, weather patterns, including extremes, are more likely to persist. Drought-stricken areas are more likely to stay dry, flooded regions are more likely to stay wet, and so on.

Meanwhile, methane levels in the atmosphere have risen steadily since 2007 and spiked over the past two years. And this week, researchers from Purdue University concluded that gas plants emit between two and 120 times the amount of methane that the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

“This is one of the most important issues of our time,” said Steve Norris, who drove to the meeting from Asheville. (Norris was arrested the next day while protesting a lecture at Duke University by Cheryl LaFleur, acting chairwoman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC will likely approve the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which will transport natural gas through North Carolina.)

“Shame on Duke Energy,” said Norris, also a member of NC WARN. “We know they are not responsible. And with their monopoly status, they will get their way. And shame on Duke University for considering a marriage with Duke Energy.”

Duke University officials say they have considered non-fossil fuel alternatives. According to university documents, over the past eight years, Duke has studied several smaller renewable projects involving solar, wind, and photovoltaic. All have been rejected because it would have been too expensive.

“If a better, feasible option was available to provide steam, hot water and energy security in the near future, then we would certainly take it, “ Schoenfeld said.

Schoenfeld said the subcommittee is taking the Nicholas School’s research on methane and natural gas into account. “Regardless of the outcome,” he said, “the university will seek to shift as much of its gas supply as possible, biogas in particular.”

The long-term goal for the proposed plant is to fuel it with biogas from swine waste. But that’s not feasible now, university officials say, because there isn’t the infrastructure. Instead the waste would need to be trucked in — another pollution source. And the proposal with the utility would allow Duke University to leave the contract after 10 years should “alternative lower-emitting technology become feasible.”

The contract still locks the university into natural gas for the next decade. That creates a similar problem to the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, in which time and resources are put toward a fossil fuel source instead of renewables. Duke University would pay $7 million toward the plant’s construction to pay for what is ultimately, environmentally destructive technology.

“I consider it a moral failing,” said Nancy Corson Carter of Durham. “I expect Duke University to give us real solutions.”

[notification type=”notification_info” ]What’s next?
A special subcommittee of students, faculty and staff will submit its recommendations to the Campus Sustainability Committee. The final report is scheduled to be finalized next month. The Board of Trustees will discuss the report at its May meeting, but it’s still unclear if the group will vote on the proposal. Construction could start in 2018.

Comments from the public are still being accepted online at bit.ly/chpcomments. Information about the plant proposal, community and external responses, and external resources on CHP are all contained on a website about the proposal https://sites.duke.edu/dukechpforum. These and all comments will factored into the recommendations that will be forwarded to the trustees.[/notification]

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.