Published: March 2009
Jim Rogers, Industry Executive

Energy industry executive Jim Rogers believes we must make the transition to a low-carbon world. He tells Michelle Nijhuis it's going to take time.

You started supporting a federal cap on carbon when it was, to say the least, unpopular among your colleagues. What persuaded you to stick your neck out?

We had one of the largest carbon footprints in the country—in the world—so we had a special responsibility to address this issue. We recognized that we needed to start making the tran­sition, because it would take longer and be harder and more costly for our customers. So the sooner we went to work on it, the better.

You’ve looked at what it would take to reduce Duke Energy’s emissions 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. What are the biggest barriers to making that happen?

I think one key challenge is to develop carbon capture and sequestration technology for coal. Another is to figure out how to get wind from where it is to where the electricity demand is—and that means building transmission lines. We also need to push for the development of the next generation of nuclear power.

Why keep coal as part of the mix?

Fifty percent of our electricity comes from coal in this country. We’re not going to replace that with natural gas, because natural gas still has more than half the carbon footprint of coal. The only other thing that you can use to generate a 24/7 supply of electricity is nuclear, but people don’t like it because it's expensive and produces spent fuel. Virtually every source of electricity has some pluses and minuses. People love solar, but it's expensive and it’s intermittent. People love wind, and its cost has come down, but it's intermittent. Coal is abundant and cheap, but it has a huge carbon footprint, and quite frankly, we haven’t found the technology to fix it yet. So we need to find a way to mix and match going forward.

You've taken a lot of heat for your plans to build a conventional coal-fired plant in North Carolina.

We’re going to build an 830-megawatt plant, which will be very efficient. As a consequence, we’re going to shut down 1,000 megawatts of old, very inefficient plants that have a large carbon footprint for every kilowatt-hour they produce. I don’t view the plant as the solution. I view it as a transition plant—a bridge, if you will, to the low-carbon world.

You recently had dinner with NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who’s called for a worldwide moratorium on the construction of conventional coal-fired plants. How did that conversation affect your view of climate change and your role in tackling it?

I respect Professor Hansen. I understand his sense of urgency. But if we shut down every coal plant in the United States tomorrow—and further crippled our already crippled economy—it would not change the timing of the climate tipping point at all, because the Chinese are going to build 400,000 megawatts of coal-fired generation in the next eight years. That’s one and a third times the installed capacity we have in the U.S. today. What I’m solving for is not the tip­ping point he sees on the horizon, because I don’t think we can avoid that. The reality is that I’m solving for an even greater tipping point that may come in the future. That’s why I’ve long argued that while it’s critical to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we’re not going to be able to avoid all the effects of climate change. We need to find ways to adapt to them.

You've said that you’re accountable to your customers and your investors, but you emphasize that you’re also accountable to your grandchildren. How will you know if you’ve passed the grandchild test?

I just added a new grandchild—num­ber eight. Time will tell whether or not I’ve done the right thing. I’ve tried to be a vocal advocate for addressing the problem of climate change; I’m doing my best to invest in new technologies; and I’m doing my best to minimize the impact to consumers. I think the next way to frame this issue is that de-carbonizing our electric supply is, in a sense, a Marshall Plan for our country. What I envision is that we’ll put a price on carbon, retire and replace the old high-carbon-emitting power plants, and modernize our infrastructure through both public and private projects—creating jobs to help our economy move forward. If I can make that happen, I think I’ll get a pretty good score from my grandchildren.

Interview by Michelle Nijhuis