Talking Energy with America's Greenest Coal Exec

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Jeffrey Camarati / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers speaks during a panel discussion at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce's Economic Outlook Conference in Charlotte, N.C., Dec. 6, 2010

Jim Rogers, the CEO of Duke Energy, a utility company based in Charlotte, N.C., is a wild card in the electricity sector. His company supplies 35,000 megawatts of power to consumers in the Southeast and Midwest, most of it through coal or nuclear, making him one of the biggest carbon emitters in the country. Yet it was Rogers who emerged as a key corporate player in the attempt to build a grand alliance for a carbon-cap-and-trade bill between 2008 and 2010. In The Climate War, his book on the legislative battle, the journalist (and former TIME editor) Eric Pooley ably described Rogers not only as a "silver-tongued devil" who could "talk the down off a duckling," but also as the only man who could have gotten corporate America on board for a climate bill.

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.

The question for Rogers and other utility executives is exactly what those environmental regulations will look like. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is set to issue regulations on greenhouse gases for power plants, but Republicans and some Democrats are looking to strip the agency of that power. 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?"

Rogers is echoing a line that's coming from the White House itself, along with a number of energy researchers and writers. If you can't get the politics together for a hard carbon cap — and given the makeup of the U.S. Senate, with the disproportionate power of some coal states, that might never happen — the next best thing is to ramp up our spending on government energy R&D. It wouldn't take much to make a big difference — we spend just a few billion dollars a year on energy research, compared with more than $30 billion a year on health research and $80 billion on defense research. "We still have an opportunity to lead the world in clean energy and capture the jobs of the 21st century," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Tuesday at the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (APRA-E) summit in Maryland. "It is a race, and the train is leaving the station."

An energy-research-focused program should be more bipartisan than cap and trade — after all, we spend far more money on other areas of research, and in the past major scientific projects have been seen as national, not political, goals. But there's no guarantee that will be the case in a more polarized and austere age — at the summit Tuesday, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said she doubted that APRA-E, the White House's crown jewel for energy research, would get the increased funding the President has requested. "Every program must live within its means," she said. "At what level Congress will support funding for APRA-E is unclear."

If powerful business voices like Rogers can get behind beefed-up support for energy R&D, that strategy might succeed where cap and trade failed. Rogers, for one, is about to get a lot more powerful — Duke Energy is set to merge with Progress Energy to form the biggest utility in the country. The silver-tongued devil couldn't get the deal done on cap and trade. With time running out to do something on energy and climate, we'll have to hope he can do better this time.