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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Which Way Will Duke Energy Go?

Air Date: Week of March 18, 2011

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Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. The pending merger with Progress Energy will make his company the country’s largest electric utility. (World Economic Forum/Monika Flueckiger)

Living on Earth’s Jeff Young interviews Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. Mr. Rogers’ “neighborhood” is about to get bigger, with a pending merger that would make Duke the nation’s largest electric utility company. Despite the disaster unfolding in Japan, Rogers says he’s betting more on nuclear power than coal, because he wants to reduce his company’s enormous carbon footprint.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Nuclear power and natural gas each generate about 20 percent of the electricity in the U.S., but both are dwarfed by coal, which supplies half. Most of the rest comes from hydro and renewables. The nation’s energy mix is largely dictated by price, regulation and the decisions of power companies. One of the largest is Duke Energy based in Charlotte, North Carolina, and its CEO Jim Rogers is one of the most influential in the industry. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young has our report.

YOUNG: Jim Rogers has some tough decisions to make. If Duke Energy’s merger with Progress Energy is approved, his company will power some seven million households with a fleet of nuclear reactors, massive coal burners, and natural gas turbines. And many of those power plants are nearing the end of their lifespan.


The Japanese disaster has not deterred Duke’s plans to build two new nuclear reactors on this site in Cherokee County, South Carolina. (Illustration courtesy Duke Energy)

ROGERS: Think about this statistic: out of 300 thousand megawatts today of coal generation, one third of that - 100 thousand megawatts - is over 40 years old. So those units need to be replaced. We’re going to retire or replace every plant, including nuclear plants, by 2050. And the only question is, when do we get started.

YOUNG: Duke has started building some new power facilities and each one generates controversy. Even as the nuclear crisis unfolded in Japan, Rogers went before North Carolina’s public utility commission to argue for two new nuclear reactors. A permit is pending with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And Duke’s coal-fired power plant under construction, called Cliffside, drew ferocious opposition. Dozens were arrested at this protest against Cliffside two years ago.

[PROTEST: “Clean coal’s a dirty lie, we won’t let our planet die!” VOICE ON BULLHORN: “Are you listening Jim Rogers? We’re coming for you!”]

YOUNG: Duke is about to become the nation’s second largest consumer of coal. But Rogers says Cliffside and a coal-fired facility under construction in Indiana will be Duke’s last coal power plants until the industry finds a way to capture coal’s carbon dioxide. Rogers is skeptical of that technology, called carbon capture and storage, or CCS. And he has broader concerns about coal.


Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers. The pending merger with Progress Energy will make his company the country’s largest electric utility. (World Economic Forum/Monika Flueckiger)

ROGERS: So when I look at coal, I understand…I mean, the damage that is done from mountaintop mining for instance. I understand the safety issues associated with mining. I grew up in Kentucky. As they say in Kentucky, there’s only three things you can do: coal mine, moonshine, or get on down the line! So I know a little about coal. But my only point here is…is that maybe we ought to look at coal in terms of the full life cycle from mining all the way to use.

YOUNG: You’re betting more on nuclear power than on coal at this point?

ROGERS: Because I’m betting on what I know. I know there are zero greenhouse gases from nuclear, and I know that nuclear provides 70% of the carbon-free electricity in the country today. And I’ve yet to see CCS that can achieve that objective.

YOUNG: I spoke with Rogers before the Japanese disaster struck. A Duke spokesperson says the company will adopt any new safety measures that are required, but that Rogers’ position on nuclear power has not changed. Rogers has also not changed his mind about climate change.

He was at odds with many electric company leaders when he supported cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse gases. And he is again making waves on the question of whether the Environmental Protection Agency should regulate greenhouse gases. Many of his colleagues back a Republican measure in Congress to strip EPA of its regulatory power. But not Rogers.


Duke’s decision to build a new coal-fired power plant drew protests in North Carolina. (Photo: Bill Rhodes.)

ROGERS: I would not strip the regulatory authority. Congress ought to say, ‘Okay, the EPA is the wrong place to be doing this, we need new regulations that the EPA can implement on this, we need to roll our sleeves up and do our job rather than attacking the EPA.’ I just think that’s a mistake - it’s a classic case of not having the courage, by Congress, to act on it.

YOUNG: So are you kind of biding your time until there’s another political window of opportunity to try again with something like cap-and-trade?

ROGERS: We can’t afford to just bide our time and wait to the right moment. We need to continue to educate people as to the science. We need to continue to think of new policy approaches. We got to continue to talk with those in Congress and opinion leaders around the country to build a consensus on this. And so we have much work to do and at the end of the day that will ultimately lead to success.

YOUNG: That sort of climate change rhetoric could come from an environmental group. But Rogers gets a mixed reaction from environmentalists. Frank O’Donnell of the group Clean Air Watch credits Rogers for supporting action on climate change but questions how deep his commitment really is.

ODONNELL: Jim Rogers has been prone to talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he will go to congress and say, ‘We should do something about climate change, as long as it helps Duke!’ On the other hand, he is one of the big players within the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has tried to undermine any action to deal with climate emissions.

YOUNG: Rogers takes the criticism in stride and says he will continue to push for a cleaner energy industry.

ROGERS: My view is…is the Chamber position is evolving, and I think it’s very important for people like me to be part of that conversation. I’m just one person, but I do believe in the power of one. And I do think one person can change the debate. I’ll always believe that you need to punch above your weight. So you can only expect that I’ll continue to punch above my weight.

YOUNG: He may be just one person, but he’s head of what could soon be the country’s number one electric utility, which means how Jim Rogers decides to use his power could decide what power many of us use. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.

 

Links

Hear Jeff Young’s full interview with Duke CEO Jim Rogers.

Information on the proposed merger between Duke Energy and Progress Energy

This Union of Concerned Scientists report identifies safety problems that arose last year at nuclear power plants owned by Progress Energy and Duke Energy.

 

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