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February 2009

Fuel for a positive future

It's not that often that you get to turn a negative into a positive, but with the support of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, Carolina is poised to do just that. The commissioners' vote to approve our landfill gas contract gives us the opportunity to take a negative -- the harmful methane gas being released daily into the atmosphere from the county's landfill -- and turn it into a positive -- power and heat for the university, first for our complex off Martin Luther King Boulevard and eventually for Carolina North.

This landfill gas project is just one way Carolina is showing its commitment to the environment. We are already national leaders in research about the environment. Our faculty's expertise spans global warming, alternative energy sources, clean air and drinking water, the health of our marine ecosystems and sustainable development -- issues that affect everyone.

With programs in the Institute for the Environment, the College of Arts and Sciences, Kenan-Flagler Business School and the Gillings School of Global Public Health, we not only study the environment and its problems, we also devise and provide solutions. For example, three of our faculty members put their heads together to form MegaWatt Solar, a company dedicated to making it easier and cheaper for electric companies to use solar power.

The landfill gas project is just part of Carolina's pursuit of alternative and renewable energy sources to use on campus, a pursuit strongly supported by our students. Earlier this month, in a record turnout, student voters overwhelmingly approved a renewal of a $4 per semester green energy fee, which raises almost $200,000 a year. I am so proud that our students have led this effort and funded it with their own money.

Funds from this fee helped to pay for the solar panels to heat the water used inside Morrison Residence Hall and the geothermal wells for the new Visitor Education Center at the N.C. Botanical Garden and will help fund a planned solar hot water system on top of Fetzer Gym.

We are also trying to reduce our carbon footprint on campus by decreasing the petroleum consumption of the vehicles we use. Our fleet of vehicles now includes biodiesel buses, hybrids and vehicles that use ethanol. To let us know how we're doing, we have a greenhouse gas emissions specialist who has compiled an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions in his first year on the job.

My predecessor, James Moeser, was one of the original signers of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, and I will follow through on that pledge to fight global warming and make Carolina carbon-neutral by 2050. Earlier, Carolina and the Town of Chapel Hill also became the first town-gown partners in the country to sign the Community Carbon Reduction Pledge.

We have set an even higher goal for ourselves as we plan the new Carolina North campus, where we hope to be carbon-neutral from day one. Guided by our own planners and consultants and feedback from the town and its residents, we will make Carolina North a model of sustainability, adopting energy and resource conservation in all its aspects, including building standards and choice of technologies.

Our first step in this direction is the landfill gas project, taking the methane gas that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and turning it into energy we can use to heat and power our buildings. It's a technology not tried until the 1970s energy crisis that has become more and more common. We don't know what other technologies may be just around the corner. But we are prepared to take advantage of them when they are discovered and maybe even to discover them ourselves.


Holden Thorp is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Readers can contact him at

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