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Jim Rogers’ balancing act comes to Avon

Cassie Pence
Special to the Daily
Avon, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyDuke Energy CEO Jim Rogers will speak at the EverGreen Ball on Saturday
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AVON, Colorado – At first take, it seems quite odd that three Vail Valley conservation groups would pick Jim Rogers, chief executive of the electric company Duke Energy, to honor at their first collaborative fundraiser The EverGreen Ball Aug. 8.

After all – Rogers is a coal baron. Duke Energy is the third-largest generator of electricity from coal, serving 4 million U.S. customers in the Midwest and Carolinas. Being the third-biggest also means being the third-worst. Duke Energy pumps 100 million tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere each year, making it the third-largest corporate emitter in the United States.

But unlike most energy CEOs, Rogers believes in climate change, and he is bringing the coal industry to the table to find solutions. Instead of running away with his hands over his ears when green activists start wagging their finger, Rogers opens his door and listens. Rogers has a track record of meeting with some of his biggest objectors. He had a three-hour dinner with James Hansen, a climatologist at NASA and one of the first scientists to publicly warn about global warming, after Hansen sent Rogers a letter urging him to stop burning coal.

“Jim Rogers has been a bridge builder between the coal industry and the environmental community and is creating awareness of serious issues among an important class of people and industries,” says Matt Scherr, executive director of the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability, one of the beneficiaries of the EverGreen Ball. “He can deliver a message to some people that we could not deliver ourselves.”

Rogers is all about finding a balance between doing what’s right for the environment while continuing to strengthen the economy, a practice that he admits is easy to say but hard to do. Electricity, he reminds, is the backbone of our economy. Without it there would be no technology, like X-Rays, MRIs, the computer and Internet. So in Rogers’ eyes, his No. 1 job is to provide affordable, reliable, clean electricity 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that’s where his balancing act comes into play.

“I have to balance the affordability versus reliability versus clean,” Rogers says in his unmistakable Southern-gentleman accent. “I can’t look at the world through a single lens. I can’t look just through the clean lens, or just through the affordability lens or the reliability lens. I have to really try to balance all of that as I make decisions on what kind of power plants we build for the future to provide electricity.”

Although Rogers jokes with a big bold laugh about his literal lack of balance, which came to light during a stint with yoga after a skiing accident, he’s proven quite good at balancing many sides of the issues. As he should be – he’s had a lot of practice.

Rogers has worked as a newspaper reporter, a consumer advocate, a federal regulator, a private and public lawyer, a time when he ironically had a job fighting utility companies’ rate increases.

Locally, he’s even applied his expertise to the Eagle Valley Land Trust’s Sustaining Council, of which he’s a long-standing member. The Eagle Valley Land Trust and the Eagle River Watershed Council are the two other beneficiaries of the EverGreen Ball.

“We wanted to honor Jim because he’s a staunch supporter and friend of the Eagle Valley Land Trust, and he’s arguably the most significant CEO in the energy industry to be consistently walking the green, environmental talk,” New New Wallace says, development and marketing director for Land Trust. “Jim Rogers began the discussion of renewable and sustainable futures for our children and grandchildren back in the late ’80s. He’s a conservationist, a visionary and is most certainly changing the way big energy does business.”

Rogers has had a home in the valley for 20 years and has celebrated the holidays almost 18 straight years here. He loves to fish, to play golf and ski.

“I really love the valley, and I really appreciate the mission of the Land Trust,” Rogers says. “I’ve watched the development over the last 20 years and I think it’s really important to get the balance right between development and maintaining what makes Eagle County so special,” Rogers says.

Rogers see his current mission as two fold: First, he wants to modernize and “decarbonize” our energy supply by 2050 to address the problem of global warming. And second, he wants to help the U.S. as a whole to become the leader in energy efficiency.

“I believe that making our communities the most energy-efficient in the world is a worthy goal, even if carbon wasn’t the issue, because of the growth of the world population from 6 1/2 to 9 billion people between now and 2050,” Rogers says. “So there’s going to be a battle over scarce resources, and we have a better chance to improve the standard of living for our people in the future if we are the most efficient economy from our use of energy.”

There are five ways to make electricity, Rogers says, and we can’t take any one of them out of the equation. Wind, solar, coal, nuclear and hydro all need advances in technology to be an equal contributor in a low-carbon world. Duke Energy is investing in each across the board.

Most recently, Duke Energy has committed 100 million to build a wind farm in eastern Colorado. Called the Kit Carson Windpower Project, 34 wind turbines will go up on 6,000 acres of leased private land in an unincorporated portion of Kit Carson County. Output is dependent on wind direction and speed, but it’s projected to provide power annually for 15,000 homes.

Duke is also experimenting with solar, trying to find a way to make it economical. Duke has bought solar panels en masse and will install, maintain and dispatch them to willing customers in North Carolina. It’s the first program of its kind in the country where a utility company has been given permission to do this, and Rogers hopes it will really drive down the cost of installation.

“I’ve been struck by the number of people who have raised their hands and said, ‘Please put one on our roof.’ I think it’s going to be a very successful program,” Rogers says.

Most controversial is Duke’s Save-A-Watt plan, which would allow Duke to get paid for reducing the amount of megawatts its customers use, creating an incentive for his company to save energy. Tom Friedman, author and columnist for the New York Times, called the idea “the mother of all energy paradigm shifts,” because historically, utility companies made their money by building new power plants. The more energy you sold, the more you made.

“So it’s really, in a sense, changing the regulatory model so that we now are in the business of getting up every morning and thinking about how can we deploy capital, what good idea can we implement today, that will allow us to reduce usage,” Rogers says.

By the end of the summer, Rogers hopes to have approval for his Save-A-Watt program in three of the five states Duke does business.

“It was high praised, but it raised the bar so high I really have to deliver or it’s really going to be embarrassing,” Rogers says.

Most of us have seen the heart-wrenching footage of a polar bear cracking through a melting sheet of ice, stranded, with too far a distance to swim for food, and it’s usually inspired us to ride a bike, start recycling or donate some money. Rogers says his environmentalism isn’t necessarily driven by what he calls a “mountain-top experience,” or as the Bible calls it, “the burning bush.”

“I don’t think there are any epiphanies. It’s sort of a recognition over time that we really need to do the right thing with the respect of the environment, but to recognize a strong economy is key also,” Rogers says. “It’s also about my openness to these different views and the recognition that life is about growth and change and evolution, and it’s about my own evolving on these issues over time.”

Rogers is clear that he doesn’t think real change is going to happen with a cute “20 Ways to Be Green” to-do list on everyone’s refrigerator. The only real efficiency gains the country will get will come from utility companies, big corporations, using technology to make energy efficiency “back of mind.” In other words, when the general public flips a switch, they don’t have to think about whether or not it comes from coal, from solar or wind. They don’t have to perform a laundry list of tasks to make sure their home is energy efficient.

“It’s going to take individuals’ values evolving, but I think it will happen quicker if we can do it in a ‘back of mind’ way,” Rogers says. “That’s my vision, and that’s why I think that we’ll get more creative in deploying technology in homes, in businesses of our customers, if we have a Save-A-Watt model in place.”

Cassie Pence is a freelance writer based in Vail and also is helping to organize the EverGreen Ball.


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