For more than three decades, Jim Rogers was a dominant force for good in national and global energy circles. On the website highlighting his book Lighting the World, published after he retired from Duke Energy in 2013, Jim wrote: “I’d like to foment a grand collaborative effort to ensure that everyone on earth who lacks power gets access to clean, sustainable electricity.” It’s a magnificent ambition, whose importance and prospects are in no way diminished by the author’s untimely death this week at the age of 71.
When I first met Jim back in the 1980s, I was struck immediately by a mellifluous accent (nurtured by Alabama/Kentucky origins), irresistible charm, and the kind of uniquely compelling leadership aura that cannot be taught. He became a utility CEO in 1988 after a career as a consumer advocate, senior Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staffer and Washington, DC lawyer (Akin Gump). The utilities he led kept getting bigger as he orchestrated a series of mergers that ultimately left him in charge of the nation’s biggest, Duke Energy. He also chaired the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the DC-based association of the nation’s principal investor-owned utilities.
Jim will be remembered for all he did to convert America’s electricity sector into an essential clean energy partner. He understood earlier than most the promise of energy efficiency and renewable energy, and embraced them at a time when many of his utility peers were skeptical at best.
He also helped EEI come to grips with the existential threat of global climate disruption, and he got his companies and many of their peers to position themselves as the nation’s leading investors in climate solutions. He understood that this would require changes in traditional utility business models and he helped speed adoption of fundamental reforms. He is a major part of the reason why so many leading investor-owned utilities lent their support to federal initiatives like the Department of Energy’s appliance efficiency standards and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to reduce emissions from electricity generation. When the U.S. House of Representatives passed comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, it relied extensively on a template from the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, in which Jim figured prominently. All this from a man who grew up in and strongly identified with what he liked to call “coal country.”
In the preface for Lighting the World: Transforming Our Energy Future by Bringing Electricity to Everyone, which is dedicated to his eight grandchildren, Jim insists that “we have the opportunity right now to help about 600 million people in a few dozen countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, about 300 million people in India, about 300 million in the rest of Asia, and millions more in Latin American and the Middle East who now live in the dark.” And “that’s not to mention the other one billion people in the world who might have a link to a grid, but still don’t have a reliable 24/7 supply because that grid is not so good.” Jim saw as a promising precedent the electrification of rural America decades ago, and he drew on that historical experience and everything he achieved personally as a utility leader to devise practical ways to think globally and act locally to achieve universal, efficient electrification.
Although Jim is gone now, his vision remains brighter than ever.