Guilford needs a new source of electricity

A coal-fired power plant like the Duke Energy plant at Belews Lake.

Rennett Stowe

A coal-fired power plant like the Duke Energy plant at Belews Lake.

If you are reading this article practically anywhere in Guilford county, you are very likely utilizing Duke Energy-generated electricity. An effective monopoly due to the market structure in parts of the state, Duke Energy has a power cord wrapped around North Carolina. 

Guilford College is no exception. 

“Virtually all of our electricity comes from Duke Energy. The vast majority coming from their coal fired facility at Belews Lake” said David Petree. For a school that prides itself on environmental stewardship, this isn’t ideal for a variety of reasons. 

Duke Energy does not have the best track record when it comes to protecting the environment.  Duke generates the majority of its energy from burning fossil fuels and with only 2 percent of its energy portfolio being made of renewables. Regarding pollution, coal ash excavation projects are projected to cost $8-9 billion.

Our specific facility has major issues. According to Petree, “this is the same facility responsible for the huge coal ash spill several years ago that made national news.” The plant at Belews Lake has also wiped out 19 unique species of fish from the body of water by discharging wastewater with a high selenium concentration, and 46 of the 91 groundwater monitoring wells have been polluted above federal advisory levels in the past according to Ashtracker, a website developed by the Environmental Integrity Project. 

But there aren’t many alternatives. Duke Energy is massive, and since the merger with Progress Energy, it’s been hard to avoid. Luckily, Guilford College can escape Duke Energy’s grasp.

Guilford College covers 340 acres. While it’s no Berry College (at 27,000 acres) there is still plenty of open space that could be utilized for the construction of solar panels. Guilford College wouldn’t be the first college to generate its electricity from on-campus solar farms. From Northwestern to the University of Arizona to Princeton, plenty of colleges have solar installations of some kind. 

Building solar panels also wouldn’t be too far out of our budget. Guilford College’s budget projections are always in flux, but depending on the projection revenue could exceed expenses by $4 million. It looks like we will have the cash for it, and even if we don’t the construction of the panels will likely save the college money in the long run.

It would be a long-term undertaking. Setting all of this up would not happen overnight, and ensuring it all runs smoothly would be an incredibly important task for the first few years—but we should still at least attempt it.

We already have a solar heating system on campus. Expanding to solar energy is not an impossible task. Duke Energy is not an acceptable power source for any institution that prides itself on sustainability. We have the privilege of being able to generate our energy in a renewable way if we so wish. 

While as stewards of our environment, we should strive to avoid getting our energy from polluting power plants, as a community of thinkers, we should also consider why we have to generate our own power to avoid getting power from a specific company. If you don’t want to buy from a company that sells consumer goods, normally you can buy from a competitor. Why is that not the case for energy companies?

This is because North Carolina is a regulated energy market. In regulated markets, power companies control every aspect of getting electricity to consumers in specific areas, from generation to transportation. Because of this, there isn’t any choice for consumers, ergo if your power provider isn’t enthusiastic about renewables, like Duke Energy seems to be, you are stuck.

Regulated energy markets aren’t the only way of getting electricity to consumers, however. Multiple states have deregulated energy markets, where the vertical integration of regulated markets is curtailed or non-existent. Within deregulated markets, retail choice can be introduced, allowing consumers to pick their provider. If North Carolina were to introduce retail choice, it would allow consumers to choose to get their energy from companies that produce renewable energy. 

Duke Energy should not have a stranglehold on energy in any part of North Carolina. It’s about time the state deregulates the market and pulls the plug on Duke’s monopoly.