One of the lessons that Exelon CEO John Rowe has learned over 28 years of leading utility companies and dealing with Washington politics is that liberalism is relative. “The electricity industry is probably the only place where I could be a liberal,” Rowe says with a smile in a recent interview with National Journal. “I’m fundamentally very conservative in my economic views. And I never met a big power plant that I didn’t like.” As the chief executive officer of the country’s largest nuclear-reactor operator, he is one of the utility industry’s rare vocal fans of the Obama administration’s clean-air rules; he also ardently supported climate-change legislation. (His company was not at risk: Nuclear power emits virtually no air pollution.) After Exelon merges with Constellation Energy early next year, Rowe will retire. He plans to spend more time teaching history at a Chicago-area charter school he founded. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
NJ The coal industry criticizes your support of EPA’s clean-air rules. Why have you been so vocal over the years?
ROWE The medical evidence weighed by groups like the National Academy of Sciences is convincing that these are real problems. Second, we know a lot about these [old coal-fired] plants. We used to own some of them, after all. They really are clunkers. We’re not going to make the modern world on clunkers. Third, we think there is a peripheral advantage from reducing carbon emissions. If the EPA regulations are enforced, the oldest coal plants are likely to go, and they’ll mostly be replaced by natural gas, which has about half the carbon content. So you get a climate pickup. And, finally, we make some money, because our power prices go up. We don’t hide that.
NJ Some have criticized President Obama’s injection of $90 billion into clean-energy jobs in light of Solyndra, the stimulus-backed solar-energy company that went bankrupt in September. What’s your take on the administration’s massive bet on clean energy?
ROWE Government, when it pushes very large amounts of money around, inherently makes mistakes. So do the rest of us. The problem is not that renewables are wrong. The problem is that they get this air of being a holy grail, and people believe they’re cheaper than they are and will provide more jobs than they do.
NJ When do you think Congress will pass some type of climate-change legislation?
ROWE Not in the next five years. I fear that they never will. And, instead, they’ll just keep doing more expensive things through their renewable standards and other things instead of doing it the cheap way. One of the things that might change that is this desperate need for federal revenue. I think it’s at least possible that in a five-year period—I don’t think it’s possible in a two- or three-year period—that the combination of evidence on climate change and the need for federal revenue will make some sort of modest carbon tax a possibility.
NJ Already in this presidential-election cycle, you’ve donated to Obama and to GOP candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. What’s your political philosophy?
ROWE I’m a fiscal conservative/social moderate. Those people don’t have parties. There were lots of things I liked about President Obama. I don’t like it when he calls my charitable deductions a loophole. I put $6 million into charter schools in African-American and Latino neighborhoods, and I don’t like people coming along calling that a loophole.
It should be obvious from how I describe myself that just on ideology, I fall more naturally toward the Romney/Huntsman area than I do toward the president or toward [Newt] Gingrich. We tried a lot to help then-Senator Obama in 2008, because the importance of his election to the African-American communities in Chicago and Philadelphia cannot be overstated. There are a great many people—whom my companies sell electricity to, whom my company relies on for political support, from whom we hire employees—who felt this was the most tangible representation that the sin of slavery was slowly being atoned.
NJ Of the lawmakers you’ve known over the years, whose work do you praise?
ROWE I thought the world of [Rep.] Rick Boucher. I think the world of [Sen.] Lindsey Graham. I’m very fond of [Rep.] John Shimkus. I remember when I was a kid and [Gov.] Bill Scranton of Pennsylvania was running [for the GOP presidential nomination] against [Sen.] Barry Goldwater, and losing badly. Scranton said he was a fiscal conservative/social moderate. Well, easy to say. But he was. And I just wish there were more people like him.
This article appears in the November 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.