UNC is on track to comply with Governor’s Executive Order to reduce emissions.  But…

UNC Cogeneration Plant.


By Michelle Cassell
Managing Editor 

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill says it is on schedule to reduce greenhouse emissions from its cogeneration plant, which remains the only coal-burning plant in an institute of higher learning in North Carolina.

In a statement to TLR, Michael F. Piehler, director of the UNC Institute for the Environment, said “The University is on track to comply with North Carolina Executive Order 80, which calls for a 40% statewide reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2025, and with Executive Order 246, which calls for a 50% statewide reduction by 2030. Coal use at the cogeneration plant is at the lowest level in its history.” 

Piehler based his statement on the University’s annual sustainability report released last fall.  It should be noted that the Executive Orders refer to 2005 emissions.  At UNC-Chapel Hill, the first comprehensive GHG emissions inventory, including steam and electricity produced for and sold to the hospital and a full range of scope 3 emissions, was completed in the calendar year 2007.  Consequently, the University  is using 2007 as its baseline.

TLR asked Dr. Pamela Schultz  to review the data, and she produced the following graph. 

As the graph shows, coal is not the only generator of greenhouse gases.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration explains: “Natural gas is a relatively clean-burning fossil fuel. Burning natural gas for energy results in fewer emissions of nearly all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than burning coal or petroleum products to produce an equal amount of energy. For comparison, for every 1 million Btu consumed (burned), more than 200 pounds of CO2 are produced from coal, and more than 160 pounds of CO2 are produced from fuel oil. The clean-burning properties of natural gas have contributed to increased natural gas use for electricity generation and for fleet vehicle fuel in the United States.”

Center for Biological Diversity lawyer, not impressed

TLR contacted Perrin de Jong, the Southeast Staff Attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, for his comments. “The chart indicates that they’ve only reduced their GHG emissions from the stationary combustion sector by about 18% during that period of time. And it’s not surprising, given that they simply shifted from one fossil fuel to another. It is also worth noting that UNC-Chapel Hill remains the only institution of higher learning in the state of North Carolina that is still burning coal, which significantly boosts its GHG emissions per unit of electricity generated relative to the rest of the schools in the state. This is because coal is one of the dirtiest 19th-century fuels UNC could be burning.”

Mr. de Jong went on to point out, “My last observation here is that 2007 was a year during an era when the wasting of energy and the burning of coal was rampant in America. There wasn’t much at all of a policy emphasis or cultural emphasis on energy efficiency or clean energy at that time. So for UNC to pat itself on the back that it’s not as bad as it was in 2007 is a bit of a joke since the wasting of energy and the complete disregard for the impacts of the energy sector on the environment was positively rampant at that period of time. Times have changed, the culture has changed, the energy sector has changed, all of the other schools in North Carolina have changed, and it’s time for UNC to catch up with the times.”

According to its website, the UNC cogeneration site “generates and distributes steam, which is used for heating, humidification, domestic hot water heating, sterilization, and making distilled water. Steam is distributed through an extensive network of underground steam and condensate return piping in excess of 50 miles.”  Cogeneration Systems’ primary purpose is the generation of steam to the various buildings on the University campus and to the UNC Hospitals. Steam is critical to the operations of the University and UNC Hospitals. It is used for heating, cooling, domestic hot water, sterilization of surgical instruments, distilled water production, food preparation, and dishwashing. Cogeneration Systems also generates electricity as a byproduct of the steam generation. It can presently supply about 30% of the peak campus electrical load.

While it is possible to convert to an all-natural gas system, significant costs are involved.  According to a blog at Woodway Energy, coal-to-gas conversion involves modifying existing coal-fired power plants to use natural gas instead of the main fuel for generating electricity. Converting coal plants to burn gas typically requires adding new advanced gas turbines and heat recovery steam generators while retaining the existing steam turbine and generator. 

Following a conversation with another scientist, TLR reached out to UNC on April 23 to determine “if the reason UNC-Chapel Hill is the only system in NC still burning coal is the requirement for low-pressure steam.  He said that your current plant requires solid fuel.  That you will never be able to operate on gas only with the current plant.  Can you confirm that and tell me the plan to eliminate coal eventually?”  TLR followed up with UNC on April 30 and again on May 6.  UNC has still not responded.

Absent a response from UNC, TLR has reviewed the 2023-25 Capital Improvement Priorities.  There is no mention of improvements to the UNC Chapel Hill cogeneration plant.

Michelle Cassell is a seasoned reporter who has covered everything from crime to hurricanes and local politics to human interest over the course of 35 years. As managing editor, she hopes to encourage writers of a wide range of backgrounds and interests in TLR’s coverage of Southern Orange County news. 
This reporter can be reached at Info@TheLocalReporter.press

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1 Comment on "UNC is on track to comply with Governor’s Executive Order to reduce emissions.  But…"

  1. Greg Warwick | May 10, 2024 at 8:19 am | Reply

    It’s atrocious they continue to burn coal. . In addition to the major environmental reasons for eliminating this, the areas around the plant could be much more valuable. Duke did it more than a decade ago, see their campus improvements following.

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