CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Kentuckian Robert "Mike" Duncan, who went from running a political party to running a public utility board, says he expects coal will continue to be a critical component of the nation's energy policy.
Duncan, 58, of Inez, Ky., is taking a low-key approach in his new job as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He is pushing more of the responsibility for daily management to TVA president Tom Kilgore, whom he praises.
"As board chairman, I'm first among equals among directors, and our big responsibility is to choose and support the CEO," Duncan said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "We need to continue to work toward that transition from a management board to a policy-making board."
It's the same behind-the-scenes approach Duncan used during his two-year term as chairman of the Republican National Committee. He lost a re-election bid in January to Michael Steele.
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He said he sees no immediate end to a reliance on coal, despite some proposals in Washington that would abolish wet coal ash storage and mandate renewable energy as a substitute.
Duncan said he agrees with shifting the focus to conservation, along with developments in natural gas and nuclear, solar and wind power. But the coal mines in eastern Kentucky and elsewhere also retain a vital role, he said.
"Coal, for the foreseeable future, will continue to be a part of our energy mix," he said.
The most critical challenge facing the TVA is building public trust, Duncan said. He acknowledged that the agency has questions to answer after last December's spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge from a storage area at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Plant, about 40 miles west of Knoxville.
"Every day, every person at TVA has to get up with the idea that they will earn and maintain the public's trust," Duncan said. "Kingston is one of those things we have to work on and make sure we do the right thing there. I certainly am eager for the consultant's report on the root-cause analysis of this accident, and we want to see that to understand all of the lessons and changes we may need to make."
Duncan is no stranger to the Tennessee Valley. He was born in Scott County, Tenn., and his father operated a general store in McCreary County, Ky.
"The creation of TVA was very unique because it was both fish and fowl as far as a government corporation versus private industry," Duncan said. "I come with a historic knowledge of the good that TVA has done, as well as some of the controversies and challenges that TVA has had."