America losing its economic drive?

Fresh from a two-week visit to China, Duke Energy Corp. chief executive Jim Rogers said the country was ahead of the U.S. on some environmental issues related to producing energy and that its drive to succeed at business was the reason.

He said in a speech Thursday that China will grow stronger economically and also make environmental strides while U.S. policymakers and activists gridlock over new energy regulations. He's impressed that China has embraced all forms of energy, including coal, nuclear and renewables.

Rogers' warnings were delivered at the World Affairs Council of Charlotte Speaker Series luncheon at the uptown Westin as a news crew from CBS's “60 Minutes” shot video and several environmentalists waited to ask pointed questions.

He said the U.S. was decades away from developing enough renewable energy capacity to help meet the nation's energy needs and so opposition to new nuclear and coal-fired projects was unreasonable. The naysaying could threaten U.S. economic growth, he said. Coal projects are being canceled and the approval-and-construction process for new nuclear plants is more than a decade long.

China is polluting the air and water as it builds coal-fired power plants at a torrid pace, he said. But it's also acting faster when looking for alternative sources to continue powering its growing economy, he told the audience.

For example, 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 on an island. It would be powered by windmills and other clean energy sources, he said.

Rogers said that America is losing its economic drive: “In China, they put economic development first. … That underlying drive is remarkable.”

During a sometimes-testy question-and-answer period following the speech, a critic said the Chinese example was not a good one: The U.S. and utilities like Duke already have the technology to shave enough power demand and produce enough clean electricity to power the U.S. economy. Duke and other utilities don't have to rely on new coal and nuclear, said Jim Warren, executive director of N.C. Waste Awareness & Reduction Network, who attended the lunch.

Moving away from those technologies actually would create a new generation of green economy jobs, Warren and other critics contend.

Warren and other environmentalists have been critical of Rogers. They say he contradicts himself by supporting green energy programs and also building a new coal-fired power plant at Duke's Cliffside facility 55 miles west of Charlotte.

Rogers' speech comes at a time when several policy initiatives he supports face challenges.

Save-a-watt, his novel energy efficiency proposal, has stalled before the N.C. Utilities Commission. The program, the first of its kind, would allow Duke to turn a profit from helping customers use less power. It has been criticized as too expensive and ineffective in decreasing power demand, which would lessen the need for future power plants.

Rogers, who testified before the commission Monday, said utilities need a profit motive to get behind energy efficiency programs.

Confidential talks between Duke and opponents of its save-a-watt energy conservation plan have broken down, lawyers involved in the talks said Thursday. Rogers' push in Congress for a carbon dioxide regulation friendlier to utilities also has met resistance. Carbon dioxide is emitted from coal-fired power plants and blamed as a cause of global warming. At issue is when companies like Duke would have to start paying to emit the gas. Rogers wants a grace period for utilities to implement anti-pollution technology before having to pay fees. Critics say Duke and the industry already have the technology to reduce emissions.

The national press has become fascinated by the outspoken CEO, who puts himself into the media spotlight.

A “60 Minutes” crew has been following him collecting interviews and video for a show scheduled for the fall.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.