Greenpeace head: Ambiguity at Duke Energy is troubling

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comOctober 1, 2011 

The environmental group Greenpeace International is famed for intercepting whaling ships with tiny inflatable boats. This week the group's executive director rode an inflatable across Mountain Island Lake to view Duke Energy's Riverbend coal-fired power plant west of Charlotte.

Kumi Naidoo was in Charlotte as part of a U.S. tour focused on "big energy" companies and climate change. Greenpeace put its first staff member in Charlotte four months ago, soon after Duke announced a merger that will make it the largest U.S. electric utility. The group staged a protest, promoting alternative energy, at Duke's headquarters last Saturday.

Naidoo, a South African and Rhodes Scholar, met with community groups and a Duke official while here. He also talked with the Observer. Responses have been edited for clarity and space.

Q. What did you think of Riverbend?

We went quite close to the ash ponds, and I was thinking that there isn't an emergency response plan - if there was a disaster, how it would be dealt with? My understanding is that's a source of water for 1 million people. Even though the company might say that the risk of an accident is low, the consequences would be high. There needs to be a little more transparency on that.

Q. That plant will be retired in 2015. What do you see as the future of coal?

I think in 20 years we will see a significant reduction in coal-fired power plants. I want to believe that by 2050 we will have largely on a global basis shut them down. The opportunity will be to say, "Our economies are struggling. Let's transition to a green economy in a way that generates millions of new jobs."

There is a disconnect between the (climate) debate in the U.S. and the debate globally. In developing countries, we are seeing serious climate impacts. (A former Greenpeace director) basically said that we will only change when we have our backs completely against the wall and by then it will be too late. He might be very well right, but we are campaigning on the basis that we can get people actually to respond before the (expletive) hits the proverbial fan.

Q. Why did Greenpeace place staff in Charlotte?

The merger of Duke and Progress makes this company one of the biggest internationally. Duke can be a good citizen or a bad global citizen in regard to what it does on climate change. Listen to (CEO) Jim Rogers when he speaks on international forums, as I did with him in Copenhagen in December 2009. Most of what he said, I would not disagree with. He didn't contest the science; he said this was an urgent issue. But there was a disconnect between agreeing the problem was serious and what urgency he was prepared to get Duke moving on. Duke has the right analysis in terms of what they are saying publicly, but they need to really accelerate it in a more purposeful way to actually address the problem.

Q. Is Jim Rogers an effective spokesman for his industry?

It's ambivalent messaging. On the one hand, (Rogers says) I think that climate change is a real problem and he points to some of the important investments that have been made in wind and other alternatives. On the other side, he is a defender, when you boil it down, of the status quo. Building new coal plants is just sending completely weird mixed signals.

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