Electrifying the UNC Campus

Though electricity now seems to pump endlessly and uninterrupted through the university system and hospitals, the role that Energy Services at the University of North Carolina has played over the past forty years has changed significantly.  From approximately 1895 to 1976, Energy Services at UNC was the sole provider of electricity to the towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  In 1977 with the sale of their resources to Duke Power (now Duke Energy), the University’s Energy Services focused their attention on only the campus.

It seems strange to think of the University functioning without electricity, but it did for over one hundred years, until a Physics professor named Joshua Gore took steps to electrifying the town for what he claimed were safety reasons.  Here in the University Archives, we just processed the records of the Department of Energy Services.  The records primarily focus on 1977 to 2000, but one can also find maps and drawings dating from the 1930s and 1940s.  The records detail some incredibly interesting pieces of information—how did the university modernize for the year 2000?  How did energy services check for PCBs after the controversies of the 1980s?  What really happens behind the scenes every time you turn on a light switch on campus?

          Currently, about twenty percent of the university’s energy is produced through their “co-generation” facility off Cameron Avenue and eighty percent is purchased from Duke Energy.

What is a co-generation facility?  According to the Energy Services website, a co-generation facility runs on coal but allows for back-up fuels like gas and fuel and is one of the most efficient ways to harness power.  Here’s a diagram that demonstrates how it works (click through if it’s too small):

If you think this is confusing, you should see some of the diagrams from the 1930s and 1940s that came in with the Energy Services collection!  The relative simplicity of this model is quite different from the intricate series of outputs in, say, the Joshua Gore Power Plant of the 1940s.

Processing the collection now is particularly prescient—the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal Campaign” has been quite active on the UNC campus, encouraging the university to adopt more renewable solutions.

To that end, UNC has been taking steps toward a more sustainable future.  In 2007,  Chancellor Moeser’s early signature on the American College and University President’s Climate Commitment confirmed his desire to make UNC a leader in climate change.  Student activism contributed to the creation of the Energy Task Force in late 2009, which committed the university to a coal-free future by 2020.  Energy Services is, in many ways, one of the major players in the future of the university:  The college’s commitment to the environment is inextricably tied to Energy Services, and now it is possible to become informed about the past, present, and future of energy through their archives and records.