Former Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers talks a good game. He believes climate change is a real threat. He talks about the need for utilities to get on board with distributed generation and renewable energy and to begin now to change their business models to reflect those technologies.
Here’s a sample quote from a long article about Rogers and Duke’s future: “When you see technologies evolving that challenge your business model, you need to embrace them. You don’t want the utility industry to have a Kodak moment,” Rogers said. “You know, Kodak developed digital, but they couldn’t move away from their traditional way because it was their core business. The utility industry should embrace distributed generation, they actually should invest in distributed generation and be a competitor with everyone else.”
Sounds good. But in seven years as Duke’s CEO, Rogers didn’t succeed in changing much at the company. Just look at Duke’s current energy mix: 41 percent coal, 33 percent nuclear, 24 percent gas, and 2 percent hydropower and solar energy. That’s not exactly a recipe for a successful 21st century utility seeking to adapt to the future.
And since Rogers left Duke last year and his hand-picked successor Lynn Good took over, Duke has moved–in tandem with North Carolina’s state government–sharply to the right.
Instead of embracing renewables, the company is attacking solar power in a big way, say groups like NC WARN, which produced the flyer at the top of this page, and the Alliance for Solar Choice.
Besides the flyer, NC WARN also has released the 30-second TV ad above. Watch it. It’s terrific. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-RWdc_s8Jw&feature=youtu.be
It’s in response to an effort by Good’s Duke to attack net metering in North Carolina, which allows solar customers to sell unused power back to the utility. Given that Duke only has 1,700 solar customers in the state–out of a customer base of three million–that campaign seems an overreaction at the least.
But Duke does, at least, see the future–even if it is fighting tooth and nail to prevent that future from materializing in the Carolinas (Duke bought Progress Energy–another nuclear utility operating in both North Carolina and Florida–last year, so may well be undertaking the same kind of campaign there). And it knows rooftop solar is growing rapidly; it expects 10,000 more rooftop solar customers within five years–and given the state’s climate and plummeting costs for the technology, that may well be an underestimate.
What Duke doesn’t see is that its attacks on solar power aren’t likely to lead to less adoption of the technology, but are likely to lead to greater use of battery storage with all those new solar installations over the next few years, as the cost of storage drops the next five years the same way solar has dropped over the past five. And with storage, homeowners will be keeping that extra solar power for 24/7 use rather than selling it back to the utility. That will mean the solar customers won’t need the utility anymore at all–that’s the prospect of “grid defection” that keeps some utility execs awake at night. While most people probably won’t want to leave the grid if there is no need to, outright utility hostility to solar technology–as exemplified by Duke–is just the kind of factor that will encourage defection.
So, Duke will end up losing customers in the long run with its current approach. That’s not the kind of foward-thinking Rogers talks about, much less more progressive utility executives.
Of course, given that the state of North Carolina recently changed its climate change projections because real projections show most of the Outer Banks under water before the end of this century–and that depresses real estate values after all–Duke seems to be in tune with the rightward trend of the state government. Not that that trend will continue forever; governments have a way of changing every few years….
But it appears Duke is not just following the state government’s rightward trend: it’s pushing it:
“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.”
For now, groups like NC WARN and its allies have their hands full taking on Duke. In the long run, by driving away customers who just want clean, safe and affordable electricity, Duke will end up not needing all those dirty nuclear and coal plants it’s running. Duke will be the loser, not NC WARN.
July 2, 2014
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