Duke Energy CEO touts China

Fresh from a two-week visit to China, Duke Energy chief executive Jim Rogers said the country was ahead of the United States in addressing environmental issues related to producing energy and that its drive to succeed at business is the reason.

He said in a speech today that China will bypass America in economic productivity and also clean itself up environmentally while U.S. policymakers and activists gridlock on the issues of environmental regulation.

Rogers spoke to a crowd today at the World Affairs Council of Charlotte Speaker Series luncheon at the uptown Westin as a news crew from CBS' 60 Minutes filmed him and some environmentalists in the audience waited to ask pointed questions.

He said the United States should emulate China, which is building coal, nuclear and renewable energy plants. He said the United States was decades away from developing enough renewable energy capacity to help meet the nation's energy needs and that opposition to nuclear and coal-fired plants was unreasonable.

China is polluting and plans to keep building dirty coal-fired power plants at a torrid pace, Rogers said. But it's also acting when it comes to producing alternative sources, he told the audience, which included members of the national press and shareholders. The country, with 1.3 billion people, has become the world's largest producer of solar panels. It's also planning to build an eco-city from the ground up on a coastal island. It would be powered by windmills and other clean energy sources, he said.

“In China, they put economic development first ... That underlying drive is remarkable,” he said. “People (in the U.S.) need to know the trade-offs between environmentalism and growth. We need to be realistic and honest with the American people.”

Rogers's speech comes at a time when several policy initiatives he supports are facing regulatory challenges.

Save-a-watt, Rogers' novel energy efficiency proposal, has stalled in the N.C. Utilities Commission, which would have to approve it. The program, the first of its kind, would allow Duke to turn a profit from helping customers use less power. But it has been criticized in North Carolina as too expensive and not aggressive enough in decreasing power demand, which would lessen the need for future power plants.

Rogers, who testified before the commission Monday, said utilities need to have a profit motive for energy efficiency programs to really work.

His push in Congress to pass a carbon dioxide regulation bill friendlier to utilities has also been met with resistance. The gas is emitted from coal-fired power plants and is blamed as a cause of global warming.

At issue is when companies like Duke would have to start paying the government for the right to emit carbon dioxide from smokestacks. The gas is currently unregulated, but several bills in Congress, that propose systems called cap-and-trade, would set a nationwide cap on emissions that industry would have to meet or pay fees. The cap would be lowered over time.

Rogers wants power companies that use a lot of coal to be given time to implement anti-pollution technology before having to pay the fees. Rogers said a popular cap-and-trade proposal from U.S. Sens. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and John Warner, a Virginia Republican, would send average Carolina power rates up 32 percent by 2020. And some estimates say the proposal could cost industries anywhere from $30 billion to $150 billion a year.

Lieberman's office has said Duke's estimates are too high. Critics say Duke and the industry already have the technology to reduce emissions and should do it as soon as possible.