Sunday, April 26, 2009

Can Duke University Achieve Goals?

There are many people at Duke who have great concern for environmental causes. But let us not forget that just like most other colleges, environmental stewardship is not found in its mission statement. Its primary reason for pursuing any environmental mission is to improve public relations, therefore increasing enrollment, and thereby achieving its mission.

Background: In 2007 Duke President Richard Brodhead signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment which requires that signatories;
"Within two years of signing this document, develop an institutional action plan for becoming climate neutral."
But, as Duke's sustainability coordinator has pointed out, timetables are adjusted based on more than just good intentions.
"The hope is that we can eventually get off of fossil fuels," she said. "We're looking at it in the next five to 10 years, depending on the economic environment."
At the extremes of the two basic approaches to achieving so-called carbon neutrality we have:
  1. Business as usual, but in 2020 purchase or produce carbon offset products equal to carbon emissions of your business
  2. Modify business operations to become carbon neutral without carbon offset credits.
I strongly favor the latter. It can be argued that the concept of carbon offsets do not result in equivalent carbon emissions reductions. To explain, take the simple case of Duke and wind power. Duke could proceed "business as usual" and increase energy consumption until 2020, at which time they might possibly purchase carbon offsets from wind projects through TerraPass, basically providing a subsidy to wind farms. We need wind power to be competitive, not subsidized. Such a measure does not take one CO2 emitting power generation facility off the grid, it just supports energy consumption intensive habits. It would be more appropriate for Duke to either reduce energy consumption (thus lowering the demand for electricity produced by CO2 emitting facilities) or to purchase wind power as their source of electricity through NC GreenPower (thus increasing wind power pricing and making it a competitive investment for power companies). If everyone demanded 100% wind power I guarantee we'd have it in less than 10 years.

None-the-less, Duke's first move is to reopen the East Campus energy facility with upgrades, allowing the closure of the existing coal-fired unit.
"When we finally get rid of all that coal and the ash that goes along with it... hopefully, it will be a simpler, more streamlined process to make the steam. It'll definitely be cleaner."said Steam System Manager John Fidgeon.
The old coal delivery railway is coincidentally in the way of the proposed hospital expansion.

Oberlin College, in their Climate Committment Action Plan, has concluded that a similar "low-hanging fruit" approach at their institution would result in carbon reductions of around 50%, while only an "aggressive" approach will be able to reduce carbon emissions to 0% by 2020. Thus we see that Duke has made their decision, they will fall somewhere between the two extremes. Nicholas School of Environment Dean Bill Chameides understands this logic and is honest that Duke intends to become neutral by "buying" carbon credits.
"We can, for example, pay hog farmers in North Carolina to use technology that captures methane, a powerful greenhouse gas and a by-product of the breakdown of manure. By paying the farmer to capture the methane before it escaped to the atmosphere, Duke would own those negative greenhouse gas emissions, or offsets, which could then be used to negate an equivalent amount of CO2 Duke put in the atmosphere."
This example makes much more sense than the wind example, as methane has 23 times the Global Warming Potential as does the CO2 resulting from the combustion of that methane. It is interesting to note that Oberlin's Plan also concluded that although the upfront cost of the "aggressive" approach are significantly higher, their is the potential that it will be a lower cost approach if carbon offset prices increase dramatically as more institutions seek carbon neutrality.

We will have to wait and see what the Duke Action Plan recommends. I wonder if they can get carbon offset credits for educating the next generation of energy conservationists?

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