Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Business

He's a rare thorn in Duke Energy's side that Floridians should cheer

He's a longtime thorn in the side of big North Carolina power companies like Progress Energy and, now, its giant successor, Duke Energy.

Too bad we don't have a dozen — even one — like Jim Warren in Florida. We sorely need somebody willing to push back against big utilities that pretty much get whatever they want from Tallahassee.

Warren, 56, just celebrated 19 years as head of an advocacy group in Durham, N.C., called NC WARN. The 1980s acronym stands for "Waste Awareness and Reduction Network" but even Warren says it no longer really reflects what his organization's real mission is these days:

Pushing utilities to rethink how to generate electricity.

"Both Progress Energy and Duke are conflicted over the best approach," Warren says. "We have talked to some people through back channels at both companies for years who agree with us and would like to lead a clean energy revolution. But they are fighting an old guard who has invested in their careers and value systems. That is what they know."

At the top of WARN's list?

• Get Duke to shut down not only its small, coal-fueled power plants but big ones that continue to pollute heavily and aggravate climate change.

• Get Duke to reconsider better economic and environmental options than nuclear power plants, the company's favored form of generating power. Duke plans to spend $2.2 billion over three years on upgrades to four Progress nuclear plants in the Carolinas and its broken Crystal River 3 plant in Florida — even though CR3 may be retired instead of restarted. Warren's worried Duke may use spending on the plants as new sources of profit by billing customers.

• Get Duke to make public 17 secret deals the utility used to gain large customers' support for July's merger with Progress Energy. Duke has fought against disclosure. But now the North Carolina Utilities Commission, upset by boardroom shenanigans in the Duke-Progress merger, has ordered Duke to unseal many of those 17 deals. The commission has set a deadline for the utility to comply with the order or contest it in a state appeals court. WARN actively lobbied for public disclosure.

Warren insists he is not anti-nuclear. But he is critical of nuclear's high construction costs (and unresolved wastes) when other ways to manage energy — from co-generation to improved energy efficiency — make better sense.

Nor is he anti-Duke, a company many groups consider more progressive than Progress. Why? Because Duke invests in wind and solar energy projects — even if they tend to be out West where the energy market is more competitive. Here, in the East and in Florida, Duke acts like just another stodgy monopoly.

Warren says he even likes CEO Jim Rogers. And he holds out hope that if Rogers can be convinced of change, of producing electricity in ways other than burning coal or gas or nuclear fuel, the sheer size of the new Duke could sway markets. "He could be the game changer," Warren says.

Maybe. Rogers is 64. It may prove too hard for an executive, even with Rogers' maverick reputation, to change his spots so late in the game.

As watchdog and whistle-blower, Warren is ready to try.

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