Green energy finds a defender in former Duke Energy chief

Jim Rogers, then CEO of Duke Energy, speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.
Jim Rogers, then CEO of Duke Energy, speaks at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Duke Energy insists it has no position on a renewable energy rollback now before state legislators, but its former chief executive didn’t hold back Thursday.

“Shame on us,” Jim Rogers said in a speech in Charlotte, referring to legislation that would cut the state’s green energy targets by half.

Duke, which has burnished its solar-energy credentials recently with a $500 million expansion in North Carolina, can’t seem to avoid connections to a bill that appalls green energy advocates.

The measure would freeze a state requirement – a key driver behind North Carolina’s burgeoning solar industry – that utilities get increasing amounts of their energy from the sun, wind and other renewable sources.

Its most prominent booster is House Majority Leader Mike Hager, a former Duke engineer.

Despite the company’s neutrality, the bill includes a provision that Duke unsuccessfully sought from the state Utilities Commission last year. It would force more developers to negotiate energy-purchase contracts with utilities, a move the green industry says would delay many projects.

“The company can honestly say that we didn’t ask for this legislation,” said Duke spokesman Randy Wheeless. Duke says it favors a collaborative approach to hashing out green-energy issues.

On Wednesday, Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican, refused to allow committee debate and public comment on the green-energy standard, which had been attached to an economic development bill.

Rucho ruled the committee had approved the bill after a voice vote that even some fellow Republicans said had failed.

Rogers retired from Duke in 2013 after 25 years as a CEO in the industry. He’s known for taking environmental positions that unsettled both industry colleagues and green advocates.

Thursday, speaking at the Charlotte Business Journal’s Energy Inc. Summit, he was at it again. Near the end of an upbeat address on the Carolinas energy industry, Rogers went off-script.

Without mentioning party affiliations, the registered Democrat said the Republican-dominated legislature is turning its back on emerging technology, green-energy developers and the jobs they have created.

Rogers quoted North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association reports that green-energy companies have created 23,000 jobs and $4.8 billion in annual revenue since the standard took effect.

“They are not focused on the future,” he said of legislators. “They are focused on the past.”

He later added: “It’s just something we need to get behind and figure out how to educate those who claim to be leading us into the 21st century.”

Rogers would not comment, after his talk, on whether Duke should take a public stand on the bill.

His comments reached Raleigh as legislators headed for home Thursday.

“This is the same Jim Rogers who ran Duke with coal ash plants and coal ash ponds and never made any attempt to protect them (from problems) such as the Dan River spill? That Jim Rogers?” said Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican.

“Jim Rogers criticizing the legislature for not doing enough for the environment is like Al Capone criticizing someone for stealing a pack of gum.”

The legislation’s proponents say the green-energy standard unfairly rewards renewable energy developers and denies consumers the benefits of the cheapest sources of electricity. Hager could not be reached Thursday.

The 2007 law creating the standard sets an ultimate green goal of 12.5 percent of utility sales by 2021. The freeze now under debate would keep the goal at the current 6 percent.

Renewable energy advocates say the bill would squelch a law that has helped make North Carolina the nation’s fourth-largest solar state and scare away investors in other green-energy sectors.

Duke has met the standard’s rising targets and says it expects to be able to comply with its ultimate goal in 2021.

Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.

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Twitter: @bhender

Environmental reviews

With little discussion, the Senate on Thursday tentatively approved a bill that would relax the requirement for environmental impact statements on projects involving state money or public land.

By a vote of 33-14, the Senate approved the bill co-sponsored by Republican Reps. Mike Hager of Rutherford County and John Torbett of Gaston County that would revise the 34-year-old State Environmental Protection Act.

Critics, including the N.C. Chamber, argue that the SEPA slows the construction of roads and other projects. Hager says environmental regulations adopted since 1971 have lessened the need for the act.

The bill, HB 795, would require environmental impact studies only on projects costing more than $20 million in public funds or affecting 5 or more acres of public land.

GOP Sen. Andrew Brock of Davie County told senators the bill could speed projects and have at least one environmental benefit.

“By passing this bill, we’ll have fewer reports to go through, so therefore we’ll save trees,” he said.

Critics of the bill warn of unintended consequences, including how it would affect compliance with federal regulations. They say the changes were rushed without studying their impact.

Final Senate approval is expected next week. Jim Morrill

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