Where does the UNC campus get its energy?

The Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee (RESPC) is a branch of student government that funds renewable energy projects on campus. The group is funded by the green fee, a $4 fee assessed on all UNC students. In November 2017, several RESPC members toured the UNC Co-Generation plant on West Cameron Street with Time Aucoin, the Regulatory Compliance Coordinator at the plant. Many students do not realize that this facility produces much of the University’s energy. The Co-Generation plant keeps UNC’s energy exceptionally cheap ($0.05/kWh compared to the NC average of $0.12/kWh). Given that the University has its own plant, what are the implications for disincentivizing alternative energy sources?

The co-gen plant has a special use permit for operation, which is reviewed every 12-18 months by the Town of Chapel Hill. On site, there are two coal silos that have the capacity to hold 5,000 tons of coal each, but approximately 8,000 tons are kept on site at any time (in total). There is one additional silo with 10,000 tons on hand. These surpluses are not actively used, but kept on site in the event of lack of supplies. The plant would be able to operate for 30 days without any supplies.

One of the main focuses of the tour in November was the ways in which the co-gen plant is working to limit the environmental impacts of energy production.

The buildings where energy is produced have a negative draft, ensuring that no coal dust is released into the atmosphere. The plant also takes other safety measures to avoid environmental contamination. The baghouse houses six enormous nomex (same material used to make fireman suits) bags, which catch the toxic ash, called “fly ash,” from the burning process. These bag houses last about 6 years, and cost approximately $250,000 each to replace. The University replaces one bag every year. Inside the bags, the temperature is ambient to prevent condensation, and thereby acid rain. Fly ash is kept on site in a silo until shipment to Virginia.

“I’m glad to see the co-gen plant is taking measures to be responsible and control emissions, but climate change is a serious concern of students and coal is a generation method we’d like to move away from,” said Environmental Finance Center Student data analyst Erin Danford, after the tour.

The co-gen plant cannot sell electricity, it can only subsidize the University’s use.

The University uses approximately 100,000 lbs of steam per hour. The co-gen plant produces steam for the hospital for sterilization purposes. Approximately 80% of the steam that the University provides for the hospital comes back as hot water, usually around 180 degrees. The plant takes advantage of this heat by removing contaminants with a magnet, and reusing the water to create more steam. Since the water is already hot, it requires less energy to create steam. Co-gen staff are currently working to get a reverse osmosis machine so that they can remove contaminants from OWASA gray water for more sustainable steam production.

For the future, the plant is working on a coal reinjection program to reduce coal use and transition to gas and potentially biomass. On May 1, 2010, Chancellor Holden Thorp announced that the University would be coal-free by 2020, but it is unclear whether this goal will be seen to fruition. Information on progress toward this goal or how plans to achieve this goal were scrapped are difficult to find. Aucoin suggests that the University will only ever move away from coal if it is “financially prudent for students.”

“Coal is not clean nor sustainable, and I’d like to see our University taking greater steps to move towards renewable energy,” said Danford.

The co-generation plant is integral to the daily operations of the University, and more students and staff should learn about its role. “The tour was pretty interesting in terms of learning about the industrial side of energy and what goes on in the factories,” said RESPC member Jonathan Gonzalez.

Other articles about the UNC Co-Generation Plant by The Daily Tar Heel, The News & Observer, and Sustainability @ UNC.


Feature Image: CC0 MichaelGaida

About the Author: Olivia Corriere is an undergraduate student from Ann Arbor, Michigan, majoring in Environmental Studies (Sustainability Track) and minoring in Geography. She is particularly interested in the implementation of sustainable practices of all kinds in the daily lives of the public. During Summer 2017, she interned with the Huron Waterloo Pathways Initiative with the Karen’s Trail campaign. In her free time, she enjoys running, creating music playlists, and spending time in coffee shops with friends.

Editor: Katy Lang