Former Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers says power companies doing it all wrong

Former Duke Energy chief executive officer Jim Rogers has written a book, Lighting the World, in which he says power companies, including Duke, need to change the way they operate. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Shawn Rocco) 
Former Duke Energy chief executive officer Jim Rogers has written a book, Lighting the World, in which he says power companies, including Duke, need to change the way they operate. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Shawn Rocco) 
Published August 31 2015
Updated August 31 2015

The former CEO of Duke Energy — the country's biggest power company and an aggressive monopoly in Florida keen on preserving its control of the electricity market — now says that the way Duke and all big U.S. power companies operate is out of date.

"It's very clear to me that the system of electric power we have in North America and Europe, which is now being instituted in much of China and India and elsewhere, is not sustainable for the future of the planet. So we're going to have to figure out something else, and soon."

Consider the irony of this statement by Jim Rogers, author of the just-released book Lighting the World, in the wake of Duke's regressive style of operating in Florida.

Duke tried to build a nuclear power plant in Levy County, only to table the project amid runaway costs and a state law that limits the utility's own risks by charging Florida ratepayers for up-front expenses topping billions of dollars. Duke considered fixing a botched do-it-yourself repair on its Crystal River nuclear plant in Citrus County, its only nuke plant in the state. Instead, Duke chose to shut it down prematurely and permanently — forcing an expensive, multigeneration plan to decommission the radioactive plant. That decision, in turn, will force a new natural gas plant to be built to replace the lost nuclear power. Much of these bungles entail extra costs foisted on ratepayers.

Now Duke is among the cabal of large power companies in Florida trying to undermine the state's solar industry to gain a stronger foothold in a sunshine-laden state woefully behind in using renewable energy.

Today, the Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for and against the proposed language of a ballot a group known as Floridians for Solar Choice hopes to put in front of Florida voters in 2016.

Fearful of losing their monopoly grip on electricity generation and distribution, major power companies in the state that include Duke, Florida Power & Light and TECO Energy are all against this pro-solar ballot initiative and have filed arguments saying so with the court.

To further muddy consumer awareness, the same companies back a recently formed group with the seemingly pro-consumer name of Consumers for Smart Solar that would continue to prohibit the sale of solar power to customers by anyone other than their utility company.

Floridians for Solar Choice? Consumers for Smart Solar? What casual voter could differentiate the diametrically opposed groups. Sowing confusion will maintain the status quo.

Given the low esteem many Duke customers in Florida hold for the monopoly that controls their electricity, it's amusing to listen to Duke Energy advertising these days in Florida. At the end of the ads, Duke often takes the unusual step of reminding the listener that the messages are paid for by Duke shareholders, since it feels like Duke ratepayers are getting charged for virtually every other expenses Duke incurs.

Which bring us back to book author Rogers, who after 25 years as a power company executive stepped down as Duke CEO in 2013. His Lighting the World is an enlightened argument to bring electricity to the less developed world unencumbered by the old infrastructure now impeding the U.S. power industry.

In his book, Rogers sharply criticizes nuclear power in the United States, not only for its inability to build a plant at a competitive cost but also for the failure of a national policy to handle the vast waste of spent nuclear fuel rods now piling up at plants across the country. He points to the spent fuel sitting in above-ground bunkers in the yard behind Duke's own Catawba Nuclear Energy facility in South Carolina.

"Every nuclear plant has stockpiles of spent waste sitting around waiting for a solution," he writes. "The thought of trying to store something safely for hundreds of thousands of years truly seems absurd, doesn't it?"

Well, yeah. What galls so many Floridians living in Duke Energy Florida's vast service territory is that they must pay for Duke's mistakes and inefficiencies by being charged with electricity prices far higher than Duke's peers providing power in nearby parts of Florida.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts U.S. nuclear power, which generated 20 percent of the electricity in this country in 2000, will watch its market share dwindle to as little as 15 percent by 2040.

Doesn't sound like a growth industry to me.

Rogers' new book urges a fresh look at spreading electricity to needy overseas areas, skipping the traditional approach of building large coal, gas and nuclear power plants. Instead he urges a reliance on local production, small-scale connections and the adoption of solar panels and other alternative energy sources as their costs continue to drop.

His ideas are hardly radical. Telecommunications advances in developing countries often bypass the old infrastructure of copper telephone lines and go straight to installing far more practical wireless phone systems. Rogers' plan to emphasize decentralized, alternative energy sources in parts of Africa, for example, makes great sense.

Rogers now sounds unfettered by a CEO's need to please the shareholders of Duke Energy. Where was this progressive leadership on solar, alternative energy and conservation when Duke insisted for all those years that nuclear power was such a critical energy path for Florida's future?

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]

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