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By Carolyn Elfland


The university’s upgrade of its cogeneration facility, which has a special-use permit pending with the Chapel Hill Town Council, is critical to meeting campus electrical energy needs and maintaining exemplary environmentally friendly practices that benefit local citizens.

Our cogeneration plant off Cameron Avenue is one of UNC’s great operational success stories. Since opening in 1991, it has pioneered the use of innovative cogeneration technology, which burns coal and natural gas to generate steam and electricity simultaneously to cool and heat campus buildings and UNC Hospitals. Using the fuel for steam and electricity is twice as efficient as producing steam in one plant and electricity in another. The plant has saved UNC, our health-care system and North Carolina taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

The plant is one of the nation’s cleanest coal-burning energy plants and we are proud of its reputation as a leader among universities around the world. We often host visiting professionals interested in UNC’s experience and our district energy system, a key infrastructure component of the campus master plan.

Last month, UNC received a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Combined Heat and Power Partnership Greenhouse Gas Reduction report to recognize the exemplary emission reductions achieved by the cogeneration facility. According to the EPA, UNC’s energy program, through 2005, produced an estimated 0.2308 million metric tons of carbon equivalents less than typical separate heat and power operations. Such reductions are the equivalent of planting 16,482 acres of forest.

UNC’s cogeneration facility was twice honored over four years. In 2003, the EPA and the U.S. Department of Energy presented UNC with its Energy Star Combined Heat and Power Award for exemplary cogeneration projects increasing the nation’s electric generation efficiency. In 2000, UNC received a certificate from the EPA and Department of Energy for leadership in environmental performance.

We have worked hard to be good neighbors and address concerns about noise and lights. We completed 24 noise abatement projects and other lighting modifications in the early 1990s.

We will continue to inform the community about our improvement plans when the town council’s public hearing, which began in September, resumes Nov. 9. All town advisory boards reviewing UNC’s application—planning, transportation, bicycle and pedestrian, and community design—recommended approval. Town Manager Cal Horton supported the application in a preliminary recommendation. UNC addressed concerns raised by three citizens who spoke at the September public hearing in an Oct. 21 letter to the town.

The cogeneration plant’s electricity-producing capacity has not been increased since the plant opened and now falls far short of supporting critical campus loads such as UNC Hospitals. We plan to rebuild the current 28-megawatt generator and add another one, bringing total capacity to 54 megawatts. The plant’s aging cooling towers need to be replaced to support both of those generators. Electrical equipment needs to be installed adjacent to the existing Duke Power substation.

Here are some other facts about the improvements:

  • The plant’s steam-generating capacity will not increase, honoring a promise to neighbors not to exceed limits in a 1997 steam-use master plan.
  • Overhauling the existing generator and adding a new one will increase the capacity to produce electricity from the existing steam boilers.
  • The two replacement cooling towers will run more quietly and sit next to an acoustical screening wall, reducing noise along the west side to comply with the town’s noise code.
  • The university proposes no net changes in light levels at any property line.
  • A new back-up generator will ensure that the campus can restart operations on its own if Duke Power electricity is not available. Having such capacity is critical to maintain operations at UNC Hospitals and research laboratories.
  • With the increased capacity from the upgrades, UNC will again generate about one-third of its own electricity as it did when the plant opened. (We buy the rest from Duke Power.)

The university has made good-faith efforts to be responsive to all community concerns about how we run a world-class caliber cogeneration facility. The improvements are needed to maintain a high-quality operation. If approved, our pledge is to continue to be responsive to citizens. We want the cogeneration facility to continue as a source of pride for the university without adversely affecting our neighbors.

(Elfland is associate vice chancellor for campus services at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

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