By Hannah Northey, E&E reporter
Jim Rogers is burnishing his reputation as an influential former utility executive willing to prod the industry to tackle climate change and embrace a cleaner, smarter grid.
But he admits his calls to action — and his legacy following a seven-year run as CEO of the politically powerful Duke Energy Corp. — are on shaky ground in North Carolina, where a conservative takeover is complicating green policymaking and climate action.
Making matters worse, his hand-picked successor at Duke is facing scrutiny over a massive coal ash spill and efforts to slash payments to homes and businesses generating solar energy, among other controversies.
“Legislation that fundamentally changes how utilities are regulated requires building a consensus among Republicans and Democrats and all the various stakeholders engaged with utilities,” Rogers said during a recent phone interview from his office in Charlotte. “It requires being open to the possibility that climate change is a reality, and I don’t think the Republicans in North Carolina believe it’s a reality, a possibility even.”
The primary factor in modernizing utilities, he added, is “regulators that are ready to change and believe we need to change, then you need the legislature — and I don’t really see that happening in North Carolina. North Carolina will be a follower, not a leader.”
In addition to being a rare CEO openly preparing for climate change, Rogers is a well-known Obama supporter who brought the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte in 2012 — a move that Rogers said was not politically motivated but instead aimed at boosting Charlotte’s prominence on the world stage. But these days, Duke’s formidable lobbying presence is tilting with North Carolina to the right — and funding the same politicians whom Rogers blames for blocking climate action.
“They have shifted their giving to more dominant Republicans on the state level, to the state Legislature and to the party committees that support General Assembly races. They have tilted now strongly to Republicans,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a liberal government watchdog. “They’re giving to incumbents disproportionately, that’s typically what they’ve done for years of whatever party.”
In the latest election cycle, Duke spent more on conservative causes than in previous years. The company’s top recipient of campaign contributions was the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which received $32,400 from individuals employed by Duke and $30,000 from Duke’s political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Current Duke CEO Lynn Good, who declined a request for an interview, alone has donated $9,250 to Republican congressional and presidential candidates and $1,500 to now-retired Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota since 2005, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records.
Rogers, on the other hand, gave generously to Democrats in one of their most pivotal beachheads against a GOP Senate takeover in November. Rogers and his wife donated more than $10,000 in 2013 to incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) to aid her tough re-election campaign against state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R), according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Further complicating the post-Rogers transition is the reality of coal ash — not clean energy — leaping to the top of the Tar Heel State’s agenda this year. Duke’s new CEO is playing defense after a 48-inch stormwater pipe broke in February under a Duke coal ash slurry dump in Eden, N.C., spilling 30,000 tons of waste into the Dan River.
“The coal ash spill is still a big political event, a dominant political story, toxic for Duke,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran Raleigh-based GOP strategist who noted that many lawmakers are “gun shy” about being on Duke’s side. “The lobbyists are now in the position where there’s public opinion pushing against them, where it wasn’t before.”
Jim Rogers is now retired after a seven-year run as Duke Energy’s CEO. Today, Rogers is calling the utility industry to embrace a cleaner, greener and more flexible future. Photo courtesy of Duke Energy.
Jim Warren, executive director of the advocacy group NC WARN, said he sympathizes with Rogers’ push for a greener future but adds that North Carolina, where Duke is still dominated by fossil fuels, has little to show for his efforts. Duke is currently 41 percent coal, 33 percent nuclear, 24 percent gas, and 2 percent hydropower and solar energy.
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