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May 2010

Researching, acting on energy, environment

Energy and the environment are two of the toughest problems the world faces today. How do we use one without destroying the other? Carolina is a research university. It's our job to put the brilliant minds of our faculty and students to work coming up with solutions to these problems. And they are responding admirably.

On the frontiers of energy research, we have professor Tom Meyer and his solar fuels research center. Think inexpensive shingles or even paint that could absorb enough solar energy to power a building. Professor Harvey Seim is studying how to harness the strong winds that blow across the Outer Banks to generate clean, green power. Faculty members are even exploring turning hog waste into energy, transforming one of the state's biggest liabilities into an asset.

Our environmental research is also strong, led by the Institute for the Environment, which unites individual departments and centers in interdisciplinary study. Carolina's Institute of Marine Sciences in Morehead City studies and protects the delicate balance that exists along North Carolina's coast and in our sounds. And Professor Mark Sobsey's water research on purity testing and inexpensive on-site treatment holds great promise for developing countries.

But we're not studying energy and the environment in isolation. We put the lessons learned into action here on campus. The Environmental Protection Agency recently chose Morrison Residence Hall and its rooftop solar panels to be part of its first National Building Competition. The new Education Center at the N.C. Botanical Garden will soon be the first public building in the state to achieve the highest level of green architecture. We recycle, reuse water and ride public transit.

Yet coal cars regularly pull up in front of our cogeneration facility on Cameron Avenue. That's not particularly good symbolism for a university that teaches people about climate change and the frontiers of energy research. The Sierra Club took note of our use of coal and targeted our campus in its Beyond Coal campaign last fall. Several students here took up the cause, forming the Coal-Free UNC Campaign to urge us to stop coal use by 2015, if not sooner.

Now, the university already had a Climate Action Plan that called for us to reduce and eventually eliminate our coal use. But because our cogeneration plant still had a good 30 to 40 years of life in it and had won awards for being one of the cleanest-burning, most efficient coal plants in the country, we didn't see how we could justify shutting it down in five years.

But being an institution devoted to learning, we were willing to take another look at the situation to see if there was a better answer. In January, I formed the Energy Task Force, made sure it included the Sierra Club (state director Molly Diggins) as well as faculty and students and chose a chairman I knew could keep the group focused and on schedule with its recommendations. Led by Tim Toben, chairman of the N.C. Energy Policy Council, in April the task force submitted its interim recommendations -- including one urging UNC to stop coal use in 2020.

I accepted the recommendations, the Sierra Club's national director of Beyond Coal came down to congratulate us at a news conference, and we posed for pictures together with the Coal-Free UNC students wearing their bright yellow shirts. We were all smiling.

Now I wish I could say, "And we lived happily ever after." But we face some challenges. We have decided to try biomass to replace coal, a little at a time, and will start burning dried wood pellets in the cogeneration plant this spring and summer and torrefied wood in the fall. Supplies of biomass are a little unpredictable right now, but we hope that they will become more reliable as we begin our transition. And we know Carolina will lead the way by showing how to make woody biomass work in our circulating fluidized bed boilers.

This isn't the end of the story. Because some other energy technology may come along that is even better -- more sustainable and less expensive. I wouldn't be surprised if that technology was discovered right here at Carolina.

 

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





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