It’s good to step back sometimes and question why things are the way they are, especially when they just don’t make any sense.

I have no doubt that at some point, probably sooner than later, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a world class, leading research university, will cease to burn coal at its cogeneration plant on Cameron Avenue.

This piece was originally printed in New Hope City, a Substack written by Kirk Ross. You can subscribe here.

Burning coal there hasn’t made sense for decades, nor have all of the reasons for maintaining the plant after the university backtracked on its 2010 agreement to stop burning coal by 2020.

Eventually, the students, the faculty, our local community, possibly the courts, regulators and the preponderance of the evidence against it will win out against the institutional inertia supporting the plant.

That’s going to happen one way or another. There’s pressure growing on campus and a lawsuit challenging a recent request to increase production at the plant over health impacts to downtown neighborhoods and campus areas directly in the path of the plume.

So yes, all these efforts will hasten the end of coal as the fuel on Cameron Avenue. My confidence in that is tempered, however, with serious concerns about what follows.

This is why we need to step back and think through the future of not just the fuel, but the plant itself.

If past is prologue, the institution will take the easiest route, switching to natural gas and/or some biofuel and maintaining the facility on Cameron Avenue. It’s the same failed strategy that’s kept the plant open all these years. After the 2010 decision, plans to find an appropriate biofuel fell apart. That’s because there is none.

The thing to question is not the fuel, but why the university needs to maintain a heavy emissions industrial facility in a densely populated downtown neighborhood at all.

That really doesn’t make sense.

We need a plan that meets the moment, one that not only greatly reduces the university’s carbon footprint, but takes full advantage of the site on Cameron Avenue and the potential for converting it and the rail line that serves it into something that will be an asset to the university and the community for generations.

What would happen if there was no power plant, no rail line, no cement factory? What would you do with a nine-mile corridor from Carrboro to Hillsborough?

There have been bits and pieces of this conversation over the years, mostly about the rail line, but no coherent plan that supposes closing the plant. Even though the plant only covers one-fourth of the campus energy requirements, it’s always been off the table.

We need to snap out of that way of thinking and fast. It is not impossible, far from it, and now there’s an opportunity to think bigger.

This is a unique moment, a time when there are are multiple sources of federal and state funds available for carbon reduction and energy conversion, a time when there are many more valuable uses for that land. Housing for people who work on campus comes to mind.

Most importantly, the cost of doing nothing, of the status quo, is to participate willingly in further damaging the health of our community and sending thousands of tons of pollutants into the skies our planet when we know damn well it is wrong.

So, how do we snap out of it?

First and foremost is to look at the alternatives to a coal-fired power plant and a railroad to service it. There’s never been a truly independent look at meeting the university’s energy needs without the Cameron Avenue plant.

It’s a huge blindspot that’s not only kept the plant operating, but also shut down any talk of doing something else at the site. The fundamental question that’s never been answered is the one that’s never been asked: “What else could you do with 11.5 acres in downtown Chapel Hill?”

Just having this idea on the table would open up a whole new set of possibilities and highlight the enormous opportunity cost of keeping the plant open. Closing it would lead to the end of the rail line and the addition of significant parcels in downtown Carrboro and along the route north through the Horace Williams property.

Beyond that, from University Station to where it hooks up with the main line near Hillsborough, is a natural rails-to-trails project or something like it just waiting to happen.

These are not fever dreams. Projects like this are happening all over the state, but it takes a lot of work and thought and conversation to move forward.

My guess is that university leaders are again ready to consider moving beyond coal, but aren’t ready to envision life without a cogeneration plant on Cameron Avenue.

It’ll be up to this community, our local governments and representatives, to help them see the light and feel the heat.

A change is going to come and we ought to be ready for it.

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Kirk Ross is a journalist and musician based in Chapel Hill. He writes the New Hope City newsletter, and has served as the Capitol Bureau Chief for the Carolina Public Press, Editor of the Carrboro Citizen,...