“We will stop using coal on campus by 2020.”
The chancellor’s announcement on Tuesday was bold, considering questions remaining about supplies of alternative fuels and the cost and practicality of converting UNC’s coal-dependent cogeneration plant. But the Sierra Club and students who spurred the University to study a turn away from fossil fuels were on the sideline cheering.
And Carolina was basking in a leadership moment — Bruce Nilles, who oversees the Sierra Club’s national Beyond Coal campaign, said another 58 campuses that still burn coal have not taken this step.
“Universities must lead the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy,” Chancellor Holden Thorp ’86 said. “Today, Carolina takes another big step in that direction.”
A student-faculty-staff Energy Task Force announced by Thorp in late January made quick work of the recommendation to commit to being coal-free within a decade.
The University has begun looking into burning wood pellets or torrefied wood — a product similar to charcoal — in the boiler of the cogeneration plant, which requires 50 percent solids to operate. Testing of wood products is expected to begin soon. The plant eventually could be re-engineered to burn natural gas. The ultimate fuel source is one of the unknowns.
Another is the source of wood products, also known as biomass. Those would have to come from forests, preferably in North Carolina, and there is a debate emerging over controls to ensure that burning wood doesn’t have adverse consequences for forest resources and wildlife.
While working toward conversion, the University intends to shift to acquiring as much of its coal as possible from deep mines that do not involve surface or mountaintop mining. Thorp made it clear that this would be a secondary priority behind the weaning off of coal. At the same time, UNC will study the potential to generate energy from solar thermal and solar photovoltaic systems.
Cogeneration is the simultaneous production of steam and electricity. UNC produces steam and power in a plant on the western edge of Chapel Hill. The University has burned coal to make power since the first electrical outlets were placed in Person Hall in 1890. Based on results from a 2008 greenhouse gas inventory, about 58 percent of UNC’s carbon dioxide equivalents came from burning coal.
The cogen plant today is considered one of the most efficient of its type, with a 70 percent efficiency rating, compared with other coal-burning plants in the state that are about 30 percent efficient.
“Carolina’s cogeneration facility is one of the cleanest-burning, most efficient coal plants in the country and has won national awards for efficiency from the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Tim Toben ’81, chair of the task force and chair of the N.C. Energy Policy Council. “But it still burns coal, and that must end to avoid contributing to the worst effects of global climate change. And unless you set a deadline for ending coal usage, you’re not going to get to it.”
Still, Nilles said, it’s time for the U.S. to recognize that energy sources that once seemed cheap “are in fact coming at a huge cost.” He cited the recent West Virginia coal mine disaster and the oil slick now threatening the Gulf Coast.
Tuesday’s announcement was laden with symbolism. It was held on the Rams Head Plaza, the grassy roof of a large parking deck that acts as a sophisticated stormwater runoff collection system. Thorp and others spoke in the shadow of an array of solar panels on the roof of Morrison dorm, which heat the building’s water.
Thorp said he expected Carolina’s decision to help guide other campuses. “We are in an unusual position because our cogeneration plant has a useful life of another 30 to 40 years,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to make this transition. We have challenges in making sure biomass will work in our existing boilers and challenges on the supply side as well. But we are confident we can achieve our goal in 10 years.”
Much of the impetus for studying alternative energy came from a student group called Beyond Coal. A member of the group, Stewart Boss, a freshman form Bethesda, Md., said he expected the announcement to serve as encouragement for students engaged in similar efforts on other campuses.
In January, the Columbia University professor and NASA climate scientist James Hansen came to Chapel Hill to challenge UNC and other universities to eliminate the use of coal. Hansen, who was sponsored by the Sierra Club, was joined at the cogeneration plant by clean energy activists. That same week, The Daily Tar Heel began editorializing in favor of the University converting from coal to other sources.