Jim Rogers ran the largest U.S. electric holding company, Duke Energy, when he retired in 2013. Now he’s chasing an even bigger market – 1.2 billion potential customers.
That’s how many people around the globe have no access to electricity. Rogers thinks it’s time they do, and he wrote “Lighting the World” to suggest how.
St. Martin’s Press will publish the book, written with New York writer Stephen Williams, on Aug. 25.
It’s a blend of anecdotes, starting with a young Kenyan who walked six hours just to charge his cellphone, and business strategies to bring electricity to poor, remote regions.
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“It’s emerging as my dominant mission,” Rogers, 67, said over coffee this week. “A book is really a first step in understanding a way forward. The question is, what comes next?”
The answer, in Rogers’ view, lies in capitalism, not charity. Government franchises awarded to private companies would allow them to raise capital and build small grids alongside state-owned utilities.
When people pay for their power, he says, they’re more likely to value it. They profit themselves as their living standards improve.
He compares the concept to the Rural Electrification Administration, the New Deal creation that made loans to local cooperatives that brought electricity to rural America in the 1930s.
The need is stark across much of Africa, India and parts of South America, the book reports.
The 850 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, Rogers writes, use less electricity than the 20 million in New York state alone.
Much of the developing world still relies on kerosene, which releases pollutants, to fuel lights and cookstoves. The World Health Organization estimates that cookstove smoke prematurely kills 1.7 million people a year in south Asia alone.
As Duke’s CEO and chairman, Rogers was a target of environmental advocates for the company’s reliance on polluting coal. As a self-described “idea entrepreneur,” he sees renewable energy lighting the planet’s dark reaches.
Solar power, in particular, is increasingly cheap and adaptable.
“Coal is a plentiful resource and it has always seemed pretty cheap, until you figure in the environmental costs,” Rogers writes. “The world has started doing that lately, and it is finally waking up to the fact that something’s got to change.”
Profit with a purpose
Rogers imagines business models that knit together technologies: Solar-powered lamps, irrigation pumps, water purifiers. New-wave batteries to store energy. Prepaid payment plans that are already common for cellphones. And mobile banking to complete the transactions.
Some ventures are already rolling. Among them is Tanzania’s Off-Grid Electric, which focuses on bringing electricity to poor people in remote places.
Rogers’ interest in global energy began before he left Duke.
He encountered the dilemma of charging cellphones, which are widely used in Africa, while visiting villages in Kenya with some of his eight grandchildren. “That got me thinking,” he said.
He and former colleague Joe Hale later founded the Global BrightLight Foundation, which has brought solar light – in devices that can also charge phones – to 60,000 families in eight countries.
Rogers chaired the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership, an initiative of large electric companies, when it built a micro-hydroelectric project to light a remote village in Patagonia.
Co-teaching a seminar on renewable energy and the world’s poor at Duke University last fall honed his ideas for the book. The graduate students came from a variety of disciplines, from business to engineering, and brought experiences from around the globe.
“There’s really no greater process to evaluate ideas than to put them in front of 25 students who are trying to impress their professors with their critical thinking skills,” joked Tim Profeta, director of Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Rogers’ teaching partner.
Rogers is now a Rubenstein Fellow at Duke focusing on energy issues in the developing world. In keeping with the Nicholas Institute’s mission, Profeta said, the book will serve as a springboard for continued work such as training leaders, crafting model energy codes and engaging with entrepreneurs.
The retired CEO envisions unleashing a wave of social entrepreneurs to light the world while turning a profit. He thinks it’s doable in 15 years.