Is UNC's coal power plant contributing to global warming?

Over on the Carrboro bike/ped thread I inadvertently hijacked it by bringing up a topic that was loosely related. (Sorry Rickie!) So lets move it over here.

To prevent global disaster we need to look in own our backyards for change. One good way to do this is by examining how we use and generate electricity. Should the University of North Carolina continue to generate electricity by burning coal? Is a "cleaner" solution to electricity generation doing enough? Can we really have a Al Gore hater running a power plant in Chapel Hill? (That last one was a joke folks. Ok I thought it was funny. Sheesh.)

Sadly global climate change is no joke. So lets read what Sammy shared with us as a basis for discussion:

James Hansen of NASA writes:

... The shocking conclusion, documented in a paper2 I have written with several of the world's leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million), and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Shocking corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation...

...The steps needed to halt carbon dioxide growth follow from the size of fossil carbon reservoirs. Coal towers over oil and gas. Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming...

A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual's bank account.

Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses.




In these early days of the Obama administration, on the topic of global warming, the big issue in reducing carbon emissions nation-wide is the need for a broad national framework legislated legislated at the Federal level. I hope the environmentalists of Chapel Hill will not waste this precious time in history, by going after UNC, instead of helping to make sure that nation-wide carbon consumption is reduced, usinC co-generation plant has one of the lowest carbon emissions of any powg what is really needed which is a carbon tax. This is THE answer to
fighting global warming and getting America off of a carbon-based economy. Once this tax is passed all power plants will
have to do their damnest to reduce carbon emissions. (By the way the UNC cogeneration power plant produces the lowest amount of carbon per kilowatt of almost any power plant in the US. Let's use our time and political energy smartly. Write and politic to make your views known with our US Senators, Congressmen and write letters to Editors saying that the real answer to global warming is a Carbon Tax. The Sierra Club supports this strongly.



In 2006 the town of Chapel Hill officially 'preliminarily pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from Town municipal operations by 5 percent by 2010; 15 percent by 2015; 25 percent by 2020; 35 percent by 2025; 45 percent reduction by 2030; and 60 percent by 2050. Municipal operations serving Chapel Hill’s population of 52,000 (in 2005) result in the production of between 11,000 to 13,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.' In 2005 'the Chapel Hill town council 'persuaded university officials to agree to collaborate on a program aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions from both town and gown by 60 percent by 2050.' In return, for UNC collaborating with the town to jointly achieve these goals, the town would grant the University a Special Use Permit Modification to upgrade power generation capabilities at the University of North Carolina Cogeneration Facility. 'In the year 2000, the University of North Carolina coal burning Cogeneration Facility facility produced 307, 868 tons. Contrary to local mythology, UNC's 'clean coal' plant is actually very dirty. The irony is that at the time the University was very clear in claiming that with or without the permit, they would go from burning 115,000 tons of coal in 2005 to 140,000 tons by 2010. I remember being at the town council meeting when the University promised to join the town in reducing emmisions: it still is a pathetic joke.Putting aside the fact that the University was going to burn this coal anyway, permit or not, was it not disingenuous to expect the University to really be serious in being a partner with Chapel Hill in reducing its carbon emmissions? If Chapel Hill was not complicit in facilitating UNC's greenwashing then as a minimum it was blind.

The answer to the question of whether UNC's coal fire plant contributes to global warming is a definate YES! ... what is more:  ...The UNC coal plant must be phased out over the next 20-25 years (unless the as of yet unproven carbon capture technology is somehow made into an actual technology that can be effectively implemented):James Hansen, again, in Target Atmospheric CO2: Where should Humanity Aim? writes:

Present policies, with continued construction of
coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that
decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. [Note to Hansen et al: That is the understatement of the year.] We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. Continued
growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade,
practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of
atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic
The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is herculean, yet feasible when compared with the
efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the
planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is
continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences

There is a critical need; though Duke Power is a worse alternative for power efficiency-wise than UNC's cogeneration facility, unfortunately, the choice cannot be between the better of two worst case options.  

At the risk of getting beat up for supporting coal, or beat up for impugning UNC, I wonder:  Does the University utilize the plant to the greatest extent possible to research new ways of cleaning coal and innovative procedures to improve the economics and efficiency of scrubbing, sequestering, utilizing waste heat and byproducts, etc.? I suppose that even if you sanitize the process of generating power from coal, you still have a real mess in acquiring coal.  But even if we shut down every coal plant in the  U.S. it still behooves us to develop ecological coal technology because China and India will be burning a lot of coal for years to come.It could also be a facility for researching ways to efficiently convert coal plants to other uses.Can the fact that we are generating electricity along the rail line be used to lower the cost of electric passenger and freight service on that line?  Are there efficiencies that can be realized by powering a train directly--i.e. NOT pumping that energy into, and back out of, the grid?  How much would that offset the carbon sin of coal?Update: Apparently, "the primary purpose of the central plants
is to generate and distribute steam" and the electricity generated is a byproduct, hence the term "cogeneration". Since the electric power generated is only a fraction of what the University uses, nothing would be gained by powering a train unless theres a huge efficiency advantage.Still, no mention of research.  It's great that they implement the cleanest practices possible with coal, but shouldn't we expect the university to go beyond that--to lead in innovating new technology? Maybe they do--I don't know.  (Too bad that the links at the end of that article are fake.)

From the Vote Yes for Renewable Energy at UNC on February 10th facebook event:
Since 2004, the Renewable Energy Student Fee has funded progressive energy choices on campus. This past fall, RESPC was recognized on the University Sustainability Report Card as representing positive student involvement in campus environmental issues.

This year, the student renewable energy fee is up for renewal on the student elections ballot FEBRUARY 10 for an additional four years, at the same $4 per student level. The fee will provide the student body with the resources to continue funding roughly $200,000 a year on green energy projects at UNC - only a fraction of the total energy budget, but also enough to make a difference. These projects position UNC as a leader in the movement to green our energy infrastructure and fight climate change, which UNC has committed to with Chancellor Moeser's signing of the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment.

Please visit for more info about the fee and how to help out with the referendum process!

INVITE YOUR FRIENDS!!! What is the Renewable Energy Fee? Who is RESPC? Watch and find out!

two articles from "Facing South" that might be of interest to OP readers:

  • Coal Ash In Your Veggies?

  • High Arsenic Levels Found Near NC Coal Plant Ash Pond

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