Ellen T. Ruff, President-Duke Energy Carolinas, says her company strives to do business in a way "that is good for people, planet and profits." While these key factors are considered when her company makes decisions affecting the region's energy future, tradeoffs and choices, she notes, are also inevitably part of the decision-making process.
Ruff, a 30-year employee of Duke, leads that company's utility business in North and South Carolina, providing electricity and value-added products and services to more than 2.3 million customers in a 24,000 square-mile service area. She was the keynote speaker for the second Distinguished CEO Lecture Series at Catawba College on October 1. Her visit was sponsored by the Business Advisory Board for the Ralph W. Ketner School of Business.
Noting that the Carolinas has in recent years "had the benefit of low-cost, reliable electricity," Ruff says that we now stand on the threshold of decisions about how to continue that supply and "I'm not sure there is any one right answer."
While acknowledging her company's responsibility to future generations, she explains, "We have the fleet we have today because of decisions we made in the 70s. Today is an exciting opportunity to look forward and make decisions of such importance, but there's also risk and opportunity in all decisions."
Explaining that the idea of sustainability was a broad one embraced by Duke, Ruff notes that corporate responsibility is also a primary focus, with "a big given" in today's energy decisions being "a clear recognition that our national resources are limited."
As more people move into this region of the country and the demand for power grows, the energy industry must look at ways to diversify and modernize its fleet, Ruff says. Today, 98 percent of the energy generated by Duke comes from coal and nuclear, but there is a significant need for new generation. The new generation can also be controversial, with one of the big challenges, she notes, "is to place the challenges before us up for discussion."
Looking out at 2021, she explains, there are five different fuel types which should be considered in the mix to serve the region's continuing electricity needs: coal, nuclear, natural gas, renewables (solar, wind, new hydro, bio masses, including swine and turkey waste) and energy efficiency. Each fuel type comes with its own unique set of challenges, controversy and costs, Ruff reminds her audience, and, as a publically traded company, Duke must keep in mind its fiscal responsibility to its shareholders.
"We think there is a balance in the five fuels. There has to be," she continues. "We have an electric system that's pretty similar to what it was 50 years ago, and what we have discovered is [that today there is] an interest and a concern on a personal level about what can I do to leave a smaller environmental footprint.
"There is a clear desire not to over-build and have too much plant," she explains and then asks, "But what is the business model that will make it go? "What is a win-win between shareholders and customers that will achieve that?"
Noting that the price of coal has tripled in six months, that natural gas is very volatile, and that the cost of building a new nuclear plant is "high on the front end," she explains that renewables are not always the least costly although they are part of the resource mix. With energy efficiency — "purely using less electricity," she says, there is the question of "how much is appropriate to charge?"
Urging her audience of several hundred to make their concerns known and to participate in the dialog about their energy future, Ruff concludes: "What keeps me awake at night is the thought that we will fail to make a decision about our energy future. No decision is the worst decision we can make."
Sponsors for the second Distinguished CEO Lecture Series include Susan Cloninger, presenting sponsor; Duke Energy and Marilyn Wagner, MJW Enterprises, gold sponsors; Ralph W. Ketner, Community Bank of Rowan and Walker Marketing, silver sponsors; and Charles and Susan Muse, Food Lion, Liberty Aircraft, USA, Inc., and Richard Smith, bronze sponsors. Catawba alumnus and chair of the Business Advisory Board, Joey Popp '77, emceed the event which included entertainment by the Catawba Madrigals under the direction of Professor Paul E. Oakley.
PHOTOS: Second Distinguished CEO Lecture Series