Utilities can’t stop the solar revolution, according to former Duke Energy CEO

by David Pomerantz

January 31, 2014

Namaste Solar installers Josh Ford and Jed Brunk on a rooftop in Aurora during a photo voltaic system installation.

© Greenpeace / Robert Meyers

When Duke Energy, the largest utility in the country, announced its plan to attack rooftop solar power in North Carolina, it set off a wave of criticism from a broad array of voices in the state. People are angry that Duke wants to slash the payments it makes to customers with rooftop solar panels who sell extra electricity they produce back to the grid. Here’s a recap of the criticism so far:

  • Solar installers who are rapidly hiringin North Carolina noted how Duke’s plan would hurt their businesses.
  • Leaders from Charlotte’s low-income communities almost immediatelyheld a press conference outside Duke’s headquarters to express outrage at the company’s claim that it was attacking rooftop solar in their interest, when Duke’s attack on solar will in fact hurt poor communities the worst.
  • An NC newspaper hasn’t waited to voice its opposition to Duke’s plan, editorializing that “Solar power is not only a rapidly expanding cheap energy source, but it is substantially cleaner and safer than traditional coal, gas and nuclear power plants. State officials should continue to do all they can to encourage solar power generation, and one way to do that is to deny Dukes request.”

But the latest source of criticism is the most surprising of all: Duke Energy’s former CEO, Jim Rogers, said his old company’s plan is destined to fail. Here’s what Rogers said when asked where he’d want to work if he were starting his career in energy today:

I’d want the solar on the rooftop. I’d want to run that. I’d want the ability to deploy new technologies that lead to productivity gains to the use of electricity in homes and businesses. I would go after the monopoly that I see weakened over the last 25 years. My goal would be to take customers away from utilities as fast as I could, because I think they’re vulnerable. Regulations will not be changed fast enough to protect them. The business model will not be changed fast enough.[emphasis added]

Of course, we at Greenpeace would be the first to concede that when it comes to Jim Rogers, what you see isn’t always what you get, and his words ought to come with a hefty grain of salt – but we’re happy to admit that he’s spot on the money here in a couple of ways:

First, Rogers acknowledges that the motive of utilities like Duke, APS in Arizona, Xcel in Colorado and Southern California Edison in California for attacking rooftop solar isn’t “making sure everyone pays their fair share” as they’ve claimed. It’s to protect their own monopolies.

Second, and more importantly, Rogers concedes that the utilities can’t fight technological progress and win. They can try every dirty trick and use every ounce of political power they have to protect their monopolies, but the force of rooftop solar’s unrelenting growth means they will ultimately fail. The smart utilities will recognize that now, and begin adapting to their new reality by joining their customers in the 21st century.

Rogers doesn’t call out Duke by name in his statement, but the timing of his comments makes it hard not to wonder what he thinks of his former company’s plans. Hopefully his successor, Lynn Good, will see the light soon and chart a new course for Duke that embraces rooftop solar. If she does, she can lead her company and the wider power sector to a more prosperous future in line with what their customers want, the environment needs, and technology dictates.

For other great recent quotes from people in the utility industry who have come around to the reality that the rooftop solar future is inevitable, check out Vote Solar’s excellent blog here.

David Pomerantz

By David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is a former Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace USA, based in San Francisco. He helps lead Greenpeace's campaign for an economy powered by 100% renewable energy.

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