Former Duke Energy CEO and Charlotte booster Jim Rogers has died

Former Duke Energy chairman and CEO Jim Rogers, who led the Charlotte-based company through mergers that made it the nation’s biggest electric utility at one time, has died. He was 71.

Rogers died Monday in Louisville, Ky., Duke Energy said Tuesday.

Rogers retired from Duke in 2013, a year after a turbulent, $32 billion merger with Raleigh-based Progress Energy that extended the company’s service territory across most of North Carolina and into five other states. Duke has 7.6 million customers.

The one-time newspaper reporter from Kentucky was a 25-year energy industry CEO who some environmental advocates attacked for Duke’s reliance on coal — its emissions are linked to climate change. Others saw him as a visionary for energy as a catalyst for good, including a healthy bottom line.

In 2009, Newsweek magazine named him one of the 50 most powerful people in the world.

“Our industry has lost one of its most influential and extraordinary leaders,” Lynn Good, Duke’s current chairman, president and CEO, said in a statement. “I was fortunate to work alongside Jim and see his dynamic leadership skill up close. He was not afraid to tackle the hard questions with a personable style that brought people together for positive solutions.”

Rogers’ sunny enthusiasm quickly earned him civic leadership roles when he arrived in Charlotte after Duke’s 2006 merger with Ohio-based Cinergy.

He co-chaired an $83 million fundraising campaign that year to create a cluster of new museums in uptown Charlotte, including the Mint Museum. In 2011, Rogers and his wife Mary Anne donated $4.1 million to Queens University of Charlotte for a new health and science building.

Duke also played a controversial role in helping pay for the city’s hosting of the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

The local host committee needed to raise nearly $37 million, but the national party had placed unprecedented restrictions on corporate donations. The local committee fell $10.9 million short and Duke Energy paid that debt, at a cost of $6 million to shareholders, the Observer previously reported.

“In the flow of history, the convention will stand as a moment when we strove to be more than we were,” Rogers, who was co-chair of the local host committee, told The Observer in 2016.

The quote was vintage Rogers, who often spoke of long-term visions as “cathedral thinking.”

“Jim was a leader in this city for quite a while and led Duke through some big changes … but he never lost sight of our city and looking after things here as well. To be honest, we wouldn’t have a lot of what we have if it weren’t for him,” said former Bank of America chairman Hugh McColl.

Charlotte solar energy entrepreneur Rye Barcott said he asked Rogers, on Barcott’s first day as a special adviser to the Duke CEO, how best to succeed at his new job.

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“He replied, ‘let’s make each other better every day,’ ” Barcott said by email Tuesday. “I love that advice and share it with teams I now lead .... It’s why so many of us who knew him personally and professionally would run through walls for him, and it embodies his own unique brand of inclusive and inspiring leadership that helped to make cleaner and more sustainable (energy) one of the largest industries in the world.”

‘The way forward’

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Rogers grew up in Kentucky and once worked as a reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader. After law school at the University of Kentucky, he served as a consumer advocate for Kentucky’s attorney general, then moved to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and to a Washington, D.C., law firm.

Rogers later went to work as an executive for the Enron Gas Pipeline Group, according to his biography, and became president and chairman of PSI Energy in 1988. PSI merged with Cincinnati Gas and Electric to form Cinergy, which Rogers led into a merger with Duke Energy in 2006.

He also led Duke through a 2012 merger with Raleigh-based Progress Energy that went off track from the start.

Duke’s directors sacked the intended head of the merged companies, then-Progress CEO Bill Johnson, within hours of the deal’s closing and reinstated Rogers at the combined companies’ helm. The N.C. Utilities Commission, suggesting that Duke’s directors had misled investors, held charged hearings before approving a merger settlement in late 2012.

Rogers retired at the end of 2013, when his contract with Duke expired, under terms of that settlement.

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While Duke is a $59 billion corporation with 29,000 employees, the utility has long been a target of environmental advocates because of the scope of its power-plant emissions. Rogers seemed to relish debates with detractors, meeting privately with environmental advocates and allowing them the microphone at annual meetings.

“When you approach stuff where you are compromising, you find yourself in the unenviable place where people who don’t want any environmental legislation don’t like you, and where people who don’t think you’ve done enough, the environmentalists, don’t like you,” Rogers told the Observer in a 2013 interview. “But compromise is the way forward.”

‘Lighting the World’

Duke began its turn away from coal, toward cleaner-burning natural gas and solar energy, under Rogers’ watch. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, praised Rogers on Tuesday as a “dominant force for good” in energy.

But he didn’t sway critics who chafed at the slow place of the shift.

“My best guess is that Jim Rogers is someone who wanted to do more toward clean energy than he ever found a way to make happen during his time,” Jim Warren of the Durham green-energy group NC WARN said in assessing Rogers’ career in 2013.

In 1990, Rogers had become one of the few utility CEOs to embrace a market-based federal crackdown on power plant emissions that cause acid rain. Years later, in President Barack Obama’s first term, Rogers was part of a business-environmental coalition that unsuccessfully supported a similar market-driven plan to control carbon dioxide.

Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute at Duke University, credits Rogers for prodding the energy industry’s shift toward decarbonization, an effort begun in the 1990s. Rogers served on the board of advisors of the institute, which applies academic research to environmental policy, and taught there.

“The U.S. power sector is rapidly decarbonizing, both because of an increased awareness of the need to do so but also because Jim really pushed it in his years at Duke,” Profeta said. “He pushed his sector to come to grips with global climate change, and I think a lot of the efforts you’re seeing now toward decarbonization started with Jim’s voice.”

As a teacher at Duke University, Profeta said, Rogers made a point of taking each of the two dozen students in his first class to lunch or dinner.

Former Gov. Bev Perdue worked with Rogers on a range of energy issues.

“He was a leader in the country before any of the other utilities’ leaders would step up,” Perdue said. “(He told) policy makers that they had to cut traditional energy use.... I was really impressed. It wasn’t because he was a Republican or Democrat, it was because he was driven by facts and he told the truth.”

As he retired from Duke Energy, the Platts Global Energy Awards, the Oscars of the energy world, honored Rogers for lifetime achievement. Readers of the trade journal Power Engineering voted Rogers the most influential person in the industry that year. In 2014, Duke Energy said, he was inducted into the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame.

At the time of his death, Rogers was global vice chair of the Nature Conservancy, a worldwide conservation group.

Rogers’ last mission, at Duke University, was to light the vast regions of the globe without electric power. In 2015, he published a book, “Lighting the World,” that proposed a concept similar to the Rural Electrification Administration, the Depression-era creation that brought electricity to rural America.

For decades, Duke depended on coal and nuclear energy to power the Carolinas, but in retirement Rogers saw solar and other renewable energy as the vehicles for making cheap electricity available worldwide.

“Coal is a plentiful resource and it has always seemed pretty cheap, until you figure in the environmental costs,” he wrote in the book. “The world has started doing that lately, and it is finally waking up to the fact that something’s got to change.”

Bruce Henderson writes about transportation, emerging issues and interesting people for The Charlotte Observer. His reporting background is in covering energy, environment and state news.