2021 Climate Action Plan and UNC’s Journey to Renewables

Story by Andrea KelleyPhotos by Nash Consing


In August 2019, Lauren Ledford and her roommates moved into a house on Cameron Court, excited to start the new school year.

A year later, they moved out because they didn’t like the neighbors.

Or, more specifically, one neighbor – UNC-Chapel Hill’s cogeneration plant, which produces steam and electricity by burning coal and natural gas.

For Ledford, an environmental studies major, living next to a coal-burning plant gave her “an uneasy feeling.”

“I didn’t even know that the university had that until I moved there,” she said. “They keep it so hidden, and I didn’t like that.”

The cogeneration plant is a key component in the first draft of the university’s 2021 Climate Action Plan, which it released April 16.

The university, which in 2019 emitted almost 454,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, outlined 25 strategies to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 – 10 years earlier than its previous goal.

The biggest chunk of the plan is split into two main strategies – how the university can produce its own renewable energy, and purchasing energy from renewable sources.

UNC-CH has reduced its coal use by 44% since 2007, but plans to eliminate coal completely, which will reduce emissions by an estimated 15%.

“The university is definitely committed to moving away from coal as soon as is technically feasible,” Michael Piehler, the university’s chief sustainability officer, said. “The challenge is that we absolutely require that steam for the hospital, for all the labs on campus, and it has to be really reliable.”

This isn’t the first time UNC-CH has said it would move away from coal.

In its first climate action plan, released in 2009, UNC-CH outlined 15 different steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Five of those have been completed and seven are ongoing.

The remaining three have been unmet, including using coal substitutes.

In 2009, the plan was to replace 20% of coal with dried wood pellets.

That didn’t happen.

In 2010, the university pledged to be coal-free by 2020.

That didn’t happen.

In 2019, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity sued UNC-CH.

That did happen.

The CBD has been monitoring UNC-CH’s coal burning and pollutant emissions for several years, and is suing over the university’s repeated environmental permit violations at the cogeneration plant.

According to Perrin de Jong, a lawyer from the CBD, the case has moved to the summary judgment phase, where it is expected to be resolved.

“We ultimately identified 7,830 air permit violations by UNC since Dec. 3, 2014,” de Jong said.

The most significant of these permit violations are violations of the heat input limit, which is a limit on how much coal UNC can burn per hour, de Jong said. This in turn limits how much pollution is emitted.

When the heat input limit is exceeded, it creates more pollution. De Jong said that UNC has violated that limit 269 times since May 2019.

The N.C. Division of Air Quality released a new draft of UNC’s air pollution permit at the end of March. De Jong said the division proposed removing the heat input limit from the permit entirely.

“One reason why this is outrageous is because the heat input limit protects students, faculty, staff, athletes, and residents of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community from excessive pollution,” de Jong said.

Without a heat input limit, there is also no way to enforce the limit on the amount of pollutants that can be emitted, including nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide – both of which are known to trigger asthma attacks, respiratory illness, heart attacks, and premature death, de Jong said.

Like many other students, Ledford said that she and her roommates didn’t live next to the plant long enough to notice any adverse health effects.

But her environmental sciences classes discussed the cogeneration plant along with the university’s previous climate plan, noting the impact of the changes the university was or wasn’t making.

“All of the changes that they were making that were marked complete seemed very insignificant – like requiring all the printers to print double sided, and changing the monitors of computers in the lab,” she said. “They felt like very easy, obvious victories.”

Though she thinks the progress with the smaller things is great, she said the university could do more to show its commitment to sustainability.

“Show to the public that you care by actually investing in renewable energies…to me, it feels like a no brainer to do at this day and age.”

Piehler said the two plans had different goals.

“The 2009 plan was much broader,” he said. “It was focused on a broad range of issues of not just greenhouse gas, so it felt a little…unless it’s someone who would definitely know, it felt a little unfair to say what people cared about, to criticize the university for effectively greenwashing.”

In 2019, UNC-CH had reduced its coal use by 43% since 2007, but compensated by burning more natural gas.

Natural gas emits about half as much carbon during combustion as coal does, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but it is still a non-renewable fuel source.

The climate plan acknowledges that natural gas is a temporary fuel solution, and states that “alternative fuels will be researched and tested until Carolina finds an alternative that is clean, renewable, reliable and affordable.”

That leaves the second option – UNC-CH purchasing its own renewable energy.

“I love the idea of renewable energy sources,” Piehler said. “The big returns, I think, would be if we could shift to having our purchased electricity be renewable.”

UNC produces 15-20% of its own electricity at the cogeneration plant, and purchases the rest from Duke Energy.

Duke Energy has a renewable energy program called the Green Source Advantage Program, which was established in 2017 along with other solar programs in a state energy bill known as the Competitive Energy Solutions Law.

Hypothetically, it would look something like this. UNC-CH decides to make a contract with a solar company for a certain amount of its energy. The university and the solar company make a contract for one year and decide on a price.

But instead of the solar company delivering the power directly to the university, it feeds that power into Duke Energy’s local energy grid. Then UNC-CH pulls its electricity from Duke Energy’s grid like usual.

Since it is illegal in North Carolina to purchase power from a third party, the GSA program provides a way for customers to use renewable energy while still buying the electricity through Duke Energy.

Wendi Fleener, the GSA program manager for Duke Energy, said that when the program was created, nearly 42% of the available renewable energy was set aside for the UNC System schools.

Neighboring Duke University participates in the program, purchasing 17% of the available renewable energy to help power its campus.

“As part of the legislation that came out for HB 589, there were some specific carve outs for both UNC institutions and for the military, to make sure that they had as much opportunity as possible to participate,” Fleener said.

She said the entire UNC System allotment is currently unused.

According to the new climate action plan outline, purchasing renewable energy could reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 34%.

Piehler said the university has had some administrative challenges related to the GSA contract format and the way energy is organized in North Carolina.

“To date no UNC system schools have participated,” Piehler said. “There is work being done on multiple fronts to try to make the GSA work for UNC System schools.”

In the meantime, the university is working to create some of its own solar power.

In 2017, UNC-CH started designing a solar farm on a portion of the Horace-Williams airport, with plans to finish construction in 2019, but the plan never materialized.

Piehler said the solar farm “could still be a go” and has been added to the new climate action plan.

UNC-CH already has solar panels on top of three campus buildings, and is in the process of planning out additional rooftop solar panel installations.

Between creating its own renewable energy, phasing out coal, and purchasing renewable energy, the university could potentially reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 49%.

“The Climate Action Plan in 2009 was among the first in the country,” Piehler said. “The nature of our strategies has evolved, but no matter how you slice it, we reduced greenhouse gases by 24%.”
The first draft of the 2021 Climate Action Plan is posted on Sustainable Carolina’s website, and is open for public comment until June 15, 2021.


Stories from the UNC Media Hub are written by senior students from various concentrations in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media working together to find, produce and market unique stories — all designed to capture multiple angles and perspectives from across North Carolina.

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