Coal Tattoo

Duke Energy CEO talks “clean power”

Time magazine had an interesting piece last week in which they interviewed Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers about the future of energy and the environment.

Among other things in the story:

… That effort finally failed in 2010, when the climate bill died in the Senate, and with global-warming-denying Republicans in firm control of the House, there’s little to zero chance of cap and trade being revived in the near term. Certainly Rogers, long its champion, doesn’t think so. “There’s a vacuum of public policy now,” Rogers told me in an interview in New York City on Monday. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in regards to environmental regulation, period.”

Ending that uncertainty is why Rogers — unusual for a coal-heavy utility chief — was in favor of cap and trade in the first place. He sees his industry going through a fundamental transformation as it moves from the 20th century to the 21st century, both for climate reasons and because of concerns over traditional air pollution. “In the 20th century, the goal was universal access to electricity,” he says. “In the 21st century it will be about modernization, and by 2050 all our existing plants but hydro” may be closed down or changed because of environmental regulations.

Yet even if greenhouse-gas regulations are blocked — and they’re not likely to be onerous should they go through — gradual tightening by the EPA of existing rules on pollutants like sulfur and nitrous oxide will force tough choices on utilities. “There’s over 300,000 megawatts of electricity in existing coal plants, about 50% of what the U.S. produces,” says Rogers. “Up to one-third of them are over 40 years old, and depending on how the regulations play out, anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 megawatts could be shut down.”

The question, in the absence of cap and trade, is what kind of power is going to take the place of those old coal plants. And here is where Rogers is notably changing his tune, talking up research and development over regulation and limits. “Just a sliver of our national budget goes to research,” he says. “If we can’t get a consensus on carbon policy, let’s put the money into research and let’s drive down the cost of solar and wind and make them competitive. Think about how much it would change the debate if solar and wind were as cheap as coal?”