UNC Feels the Heat over Continued Coal Combustion

UNC’s coal-burning co-generation facility abutting residences on Cameron Avenue. Photo by Michelle Cassell.


By Michelle Cassell

The lonesome whistle and chug of a small train can be heard often several times a week as it cuts through the heart of Carrboro and Chapel Hill.  Bells clang, and crossing signs lower as the train carries loads of coal into the aging UNC power plant. The plant operates unabated, releasing particles of governmentally-permitted toxins into the air. Meanwhile, the university campus, athletic fields, the eclectic town of Carrboro, and historic homes bursting with Southern charm amid the blooming dogwoods and azaleas are all within walking distance of the controversial coal-burning plant.


UNC’s pledge to cease using coal by May 2020 has long gone up in smoke. Still, the sparks of public anti-coal sentiment are firing up again to abolish the use of coal at the university’s cogeneration plant on Cameron Avenue in Chapel Hill. The initial commitment to end the use of coal by May 2020 has morphed into a target to be emission-neutral by 2040, as stated in UNC’s Sustainable Climate Action Plan. This plan was published by UNC in April 2021 while the university was being sued for violating the Federal Clean Air Act.

The recently failed lawsuit filed against UNC and subsequent petitions to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for action have heightened public awareness of UNC’s coal-burning albatross. Additionally, the “now or never” warning from the world’s top climate scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change April 4 beg the university’s response.

Chief Sustainability Officer and Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Sustainability Michael Piehler issued this statement to The Local Reporter  April 1:

“The University is committed to its transition from coal use at the cogeneration facility, as demonstrated by the 52% reduction in coal use from 2007 to 2020.

“The University’s Sustainable Climate Action Plan, which moves up the target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by a decade to 2040, details several new strategic initiatives to accelerate Carolina’s reduction in greenhouse emissions, including ending coal use at the facility as soon as feasible.”

Anti-coal protesters and students say 2040 is too long to wait. A demonstration and march were held March 25 as part of the 2022 Global Climate Strike to express marchers’ objection the timeline of the goals and benchmarks in the University’s Climate Action Plan.

According to Piehler, the extended timeline is necessary: “Rather than providing a timeline with significant uncertainty, [UNC] provides transparency around progress in reducing coal use, including 18% and 17% consecutive reductions in each of the last two years. Like many other university campuses, UNC-Chapel Hill uses an energy system that produces steam, chilled water, and electricity at a central cogeneration plant and distributes it throughout the campus. The university’s cogeneration facility’s primary purpose is to produce and distribute steam required for heating, humidification, domestic hot water heating, and sterilization across campus and UNC Hospitals facilities.”

The UNC plan clearly shows how natural gas has gradually replaced coal. However, UNC has not explained why it does not just switch entirely to natural gas — a cheaper and cleaner fuel.

“They are burning natural gas in the same burners they use to burn coal without making major improvements to make that happen,” said Perrin de Jong, Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and a lead attorney in the lawsuit filed against UNC. [UNC’s] excuse that it was too costly to modify the plant to burn natural gas was just a lie.”

CBD is a nonprofit group with more than 69,000 members. The Center pursues the protection of human health as one of its primary environmental objectives.

“I grew up in Chapel Hill,” says de Jong, “ so I have a personal relationship with this particular pollution source.” Growing up as an asthmatic child living within 2 miles of the coal-burning plant, he was often in the emergency room, unable to breathe. “ It was much worse in the winter,” he said. Although he can’t yet prove in court that his childhood respiratory difficulties were a direct result of the air pollution generated by UNC’s cogeneration or coal-burning plant, he still believes the CBD has a viable route to bring an end to UNC’s use of coal. “The fight is not over,” said de Jong.

A train bringing coal to the cogeneration facility. Photo by Michelle Cassell.




The lawsuit that failed in September 2021 will not be appealed, but petitions are ongoing. The suit looked promising. The case claimed that UNC had violated various permit conditions (in 269 instances) related to record-keeping, reporting, monitoring and inspection, and operation of some of its primary pollution sources.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles explained in her opinion that the writer and issuer of the permit intended the ambiguous 323.17 heat input capacity to be a descriptor. “Heat input capacity” is a term for how much coal can be burned at a time. Therefore the heat index measure was deemed “just a description,” not an enforceable standard. This effectively threw out the numerous violations documented by the CBD.

CBD, however, claimed a victory over the state regulators January 27, 2022, after the North Carolina Division of Air Quality proposed a new rule requiring state regulators to issue decisions on air-pollution permits within 18 months, as required by the Federal Clean Air Act. Previously, a provision in North Carolina’s permitting regulations allowed air-pollution regulators to sit indefinitely on an application for a new or renewed permit. The CBD determined that the state’s flawed permit program posed a significant threat to public health after the state agency failed, for six years, to take action on a controversial permit-renewal application for UNC’s coal-burning plant.


UNC’s permit to operate its coal-burning plant in Chapel Hill is currently being challenged by petitioners CBD, The Sierra Club, and the Town of Carrboro. The latter claim that the North Carolina Department of Air Quality license does not comply with the 1990 Federal Clean Air Act amendments regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA’s response to the petition is pending.

The Title V permit held by UNC allows the cogeneration coal-burning facility to operate with an allowable level of pollutants expelled into the air. North Carolina’s State Implementation Plan (SIP) requires that the permit contain emission limits adequate to ensure that UNC does not exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). According to the petition, the complaint contends that the current permit “fails to include emission limits adequate to prevent violations of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards and that the State Implementation Plan requires,” according to this most recent petition.

“UNC stands alone as the biggest air polluter in Orange County. UNC is the only major source of air pollution since they are the only holder of a Title V air permit in Orange County,” said de Jong. Title V permits are restricted to what the EPA calls primary, significant sources of air pollution.

“The current petition filed October 1, 2021, asks the EPA to object to the Title V permit because they claim it does not comply with the Clean Air Act implementation plan.”

“Hopefully, this could cut down on the number of pollutants until the plant is no longer using coal,” said de Jong. The petition asks the EPA to revise and reissue the permit to comply with the Clean Air Act and the SIP requirements. Response from the EPA is pending.


Since 1990, many universities have complied with the Clean Air Act and virtually eliminated their use of coal. Many have switched to complete reliance on electric boilers, which produce the fewest local emissions, and others use natural gas. Like coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel, but burning natural gas for energy emits fewer air pollutants and CO2 than coal combustion.

The University of Georgia at Athens is an example of a university that has switched its coal-burning plant to electricity, which it did in 2015.

If the petition filed in October is successful, the EPA will limit the amounts of coal UNC can burn at its Cameron Street facility. Then, economics come into play: The cost of purchasing smaller quantities of coal would cause the price to go up, making coal a less attractive fuel source.

The power plant’s smokestack viewed from nearby residences. Photo by Michelle Cassell.

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1 Comment on "UNC Feels the Heat over Continued Coal Combustion"

  1. Excellent piece.

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