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By Liz Bloomhardt

Originally Published December 8, 2011

 

Duke has stepped off the coal train. Nostalgia, however, has us hanging on to the memories, but it’s time to move on. For posterity, let us note the role of coal in the University’s history with a plaque then move on by renaming Coal Pile Drive.

The time is right for this change to happen. First, because the University recently ended its use of coal after more than 80 years as the primary fuel source. Second, because the Duke University Medical Center (DUMC) is currently undergoing a dramatic physical transformation that should and will take center stage of the roadway. Third, because the University has more notable people and accomplishments to celebrate than a coal pile.

To the first point, in the Spring of this year, Duke officially ended its more than 80-year reliance on coal as the primary fuel source for on-campus steam production. Steam is primarily used to heat buildings on campus. Prior to implementation of the Climate Action Plan (CAP) in 2009, coal made up nearly 90 percent of the fuel mix for steam production. At the same time, steam production itself contributed 24 percent of the total emissions of the University.

Since the CAP was implemented, a careful juggling act of steam capacity has taken place. The East Campus Steam Plant, located next to Smith Warehouse, has been renovated and restored to run on natural gas. As a result, the CAP calculates a drop in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of nearly 10 percent compared to baseline estimates. The full measure of actual reductions from the renovations will appear in reporting for 2011, which is not yet available. Presumably, 2011 should prove to be another successful year of reductions in campus GHG emissions.

It’s now time for the West Campus Steam Plant to receive a facelift. The coal pile is now gone, and so is the equipment required to move and burn coal within the facility. In its place, additional natural gas boilers will be installed with fuel oil back-up. The building will also undergo restoration to reveal the original architecture, similar to the award-winning facelift of the East Campus facility. Once in operation, the West Campus Steam Plant will resume primary steam production and the East Campus Steam Plant will serve to compliment that capacity when necessary.

Plant modification is not the only activity happening on Coal Pile Drive these days. The drive is also undergoing a dramatic transformation from back alley to front door. Not more than two years ago, the uninviting river of pavement ran by a small patch of woods, then the actual coal pile on its way to the hospital. For visitors, you may have hardly noticed the coal pile itself. Instead you were more likely to be caught in awe by the tall smoke stacks imposing on the skyline with their harsh industrialism. You might also have been caught, literally, between the tall concrete wall holding back the coal pile and oncoming traffic.

Now, there is a guard stationed under a collapsible tent, with construction cranes and heavy equipment vigorously building out what will be a dramatically transformed part of DUMC. New buildings include the Duke University Cancer Center, the new Duke Medicine Pavilion, a hospital expansion and the new School of Medicine Learning Center. In addition to the new buildings, plans are in place to connect DUMC with a spine of greenways and quadrangles that provide healing natural environments for patients, families and visitors. That spine will run down the old Coal Pile Drive and connect DUMC with the Engineering Quad and the rest of campus. A screen of trees will be planted between this pedestrian way and the renovated steam plant.

With Coal Pile Drive’s defining landmark no longer in place, it seems natural that its name should also be retired from use. According to retired University Architect, John Pearce, he officially bestowed the name on the access road in the 1990s when the Durham Fire Marshal required 911 addresses for all on-campus buildings. Prior to that time it may have been referred to as Coal Pile Drive, but the name was apparently not official as it was a private road.

Regardless of the origin, the moniker is no longer needed for orientation. In addition to being a prime naming opportunity for a potential donor, the new greenway should serve as the foundation for the new name, demanding in its own right the honor of orienting the campus.

Duke no doubt has reason to celebrate the significant milestones on the road to its greener future. Ending its use of coal is one of those milestones, and the renovation and renaming of Coal Pile Drive is a true opportunity to paint the campus landscape in our future vision.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in earth and ocean sciences. This is her final column of the semester.

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