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Jim Rogers, Duke Energy executive who promoted clean energy, dies at 71

Jim Rogers speaks during the Charlotte Chamber's Economic Outlook Conference in 2011.
Jim Rogers speaks during the Charlotte Chamber's Economic Outlook Conference in 2011. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Jim Rogers, the former chief executive of Duke Energy who became one of the first prominent energy industry officials to recognize the threat of climate change and argue that it should be addressed through federal policy, died Dec. 17 at a hospital in Louisville, where he was visiting family. He was 71.

The cause was sepsis, said his longtime Duke spokesman, Tom Williams.

Mr. Rogers, a lawyer by training and a policy person at heart, became chief executive of Duke Energy in 2006, having spent 18 years at the helm of two other utilities. The second, Cinergy, was merged into Duke.

Duke Energy then became one of the country’s biggest utilities, with interests in coal, natural gas and nuclear power, and it became a public policy platform for Mr. Rogers, who helped bring the Democratic National Convention to Duke’s hometown of Charlotte in 2012.

Seeing tougher restrictions on coal as inevitable, Mr. Rogers broke taboos in the utility industry and became a supporter of a cap-and-trade approach that President Barack Obama favored to reduce carbon emissions. During negotiations over the cap-and-trade bill that ultimately passed the House but failed in the Senate, Mr. Rogers frequently told audiences and reporters that “if we are not at the table, we will be on the menu, and I intend to be at the table.”

Jason Bordoff, founding director of Columbia University’s global energy policy center and former National Security Council senior director for energy and climate under Obama, said that Mr. Rogers “saw the potential for clean electricity sources like renewables earlier than many of his peers.”

Bordoff also said that Mr. Rogers was “a key member of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership that developed a template for the climate legislation passed by the House of Representatives.”

Since Mr. Rogers became its chief executive, Duke Energy has invested more than $4 billion on wind and solar power projects.

But Mr. Rogers also came under criticism from environmental groups because he favored a gradual transition away from coal. They also contended that he had not moved fast enough to shut down coal plants or to clean up the coal ash waste that had built up over decades. That corporate legacy surfaced recently after the rains from Hurricane Florence led to a Duke coal ash facility overflowing its banks and into the Cape Fear River.

James Eugene Rogers Jr. was born in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 20, 1947, and grew up largely in Danville, Ky. He took a job as a reporter writing obituaries for the Lexington Herald-Leader and worked his way through the University of Kentucky, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1970 and a law degree in 1974.

He then became a Kentucky Supreme Court law clerk, a litigator at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and a partner at the Washington law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. He was an executive at Enron’s gas pipeline unit, leaving a dozen years before the company’s financial collapse.

At Duke, Mr. Rogers was a generous booster of Charlotte, where the company was based. He co-chaired an $83 million fundraising campaign to establish new museums in Charlotte. In 2011, Mr. Rogers and his wife, Mary Anne, gave $4.1 million for the construction of a new health and science building at the city’s Queens University.

In 2012, Mr. Rogers headed a local host committee for the Democratic National Convention that needed to raise nearly $37 million. But the national party had restricted corporate donations, hampering fundraising efforts. Asked by The Washington Post how he would raise the money, Mr. Rogers said in 2011, “I’m standing on street corners with a tin can and trying to collect some money. I don’t know if I’m going to find 370 friends to give me $100,000 each.”

When the local committee came up $10.9 million short, the shortfall was covered by Duke Energy. The move cost shareholders $6 million, the Charlotte Observer reported.

In 2012, Duke merged with Progress Energy, creating the country’s largest utility. But it became a turbulent corporate marriage. The new chief executive of the combined company was ousted within hours of the deal’s closing, and Mr. Rogers was reinstated. But the North Carolina Utilities Commission, finding investors had been misled, approved a settlement under which Mr. Rogers retired in 2013.

Over 25 years as the top executive of three utilities, he helped guide them to 12 percent average annual returns, according to Williams, the Duke spokesman.

Mr. Rogers brought the same energy to his next act, as a director and fundraiser for institutions including the Nature Conservancy. He also wrote a book, “Lighting the World” (2015), which offered pragmatic solutions that the public and private sectors could use to lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty.

Climate change hung over his career at Duke. “I believe in global warming,” he told comedian Stephen Colbert in a 2009 interview. But Mr. Rogers still said that he favored a search for ways to extract carbon dioxide from the exhaust of coal plants, a costly technology that is still being researched. He told Colbert he hoped to “decarbonize” the fleet of coal plants, not junk it.

Mr. Rogers said he read extensively about climate change, including Al Gore’s book “An Inconvenient Truth.” “It’s not like I woke up one morning and felt God spoke to me,” he said in an interview in 2007. “It took years of reading and thinking about it.”

Though a supporter of nuclear power, Mr. Rogers also said it was too expensive to “bet the farm” on it. He compared the site of an abandoned nuclear plant with the set of a “Mad Max” movie.

Mr. Rogers was at times openly critical of congressional Republicans for defeating the cap-and-trade plan that was modeled on a similar plan President George H.W. Bush used to slash sulfur dioxide emissions. Mr. Rogers, who as chief executive of PSI Energy had supported Bush’s plan, was convinced later that the same approach would cut carbon dioxide emissions.

In the 2011 Post interview, Mr. Rogers said that “the only approach to address the carbon issue [is one] that allows us to successfully reduce emissions in a way that is fair and allows us to transition to a [less carbon-intensive] world. Unfortunately, the people who invented it have demonized it — the Republicans. When they created it, they called it the greatest use of market forces to solve the problems of the world.”

By that time, especially with the surge of cheap shale gas, Duke sped up the retirement of coal plants.

Today, one of the final new coal plants to go online in the United States is named for Mr. Rogers. Because it is relatively new, Duke doesn’t expect to close it until 2048.

Mr. Rogers’s first marriage, to Robyn McGill, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 41 years, the former Mary Anne Boldrick of Charlotte; three children from his first marriage, Chrissi Morgan of Pebble Beach, Calif., Kara Black of Sandwich, Mass., and Ben Rogers of Madison, N.J.; a brother; two sisters; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

In his work, Mr. Rogers said that he employed what he called “the grandchildren test.”

“I want them to be able to look back and say, ‘My granddaddy made a good decision,’ ” he told the New York Times in 2008, “ ‘— and it’s still a good decision.’ ”

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