Former Utility CEO Brings Solar Power to Africa
Jim Rogers has a new mission.
The former Duke Energy Corp. CEO is well-known for helping to nudge an often-reluctant utility industry into backing federal carbon legislation 10 years ago. That bill ultimately failed, but Rogers has launched a new endeavor that could also have big implications for the climate: delivering solar power to some of the poorest people on the planet.
Rural African electrification isn’t a main topic of conversation in most utility boardrooms today, just as carbon mitigation wasn’t when Rogers used his chairmanship of the Edison Electric Institute to wrangle support for cap-and-trade legislation.
But that makes it the kind of cause that appeals to Rogers.
“I have a faulty DNA,” Rogers jokingly said in a recent interview with E&E News. “I have a maverick piece of me that’s always trying to look around the corner and see what’s coming.”
Rogers, 70, became interested in low-income country rural electrification relatively recently, when he and his wife, Mary Anne, took four of their grandchildren around Kenya in 2010. They went on safari but also spent days visiting communities across the East African country.
“It gave the grandkids an opportunity to see how people live, to try and understand their quality of life and broaden their perspective about the world,” he said. In one village with no power, the family met a young man with a cellphone who said he had to walk three hours just to charge it.
It’s a common story. Lack of power takes an immense human toll on rural populations in Africa especially, where an estimated 625 million people—women and children, disproportionally—live off-grid in rural areas, relying on expensive or unhealthy solutions like kerosene and traditional cook stoves run on manure. There is no clear path to connecting most of these areas to the grid anytime soon—in fact, Africa’s population is growing faster than its grid is expanding.
The situation promises to keep broad swaths of the continent in poverty, diminishing agricultural production and inhibiting access to education and health care.
Access to power
Rogers and Joe Hale—his friend and fellow utility executive—decided to launch the Global Brightlight Foundation, with the backing of Duke and later supported by the Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership, a broader industry group chaired by Rogers.
The goal: to provide small-scale distributed solar solutions at highly subsidized prices to Africans without access to power.
Rogers continued to build the nonprofit after he retired in 2013. He said he views energy poverty as a key human rights issue, exacerbating everything from global instability to the international refugee crisis.
“Maybe the single biggest inequality in the world today is those that have power and those that don’t have it, because of what it enables,” he said.
The immigrants from low-income nations President Trump disparaged earlier this month in a closed-door White House meeting (he reportedly referred to them as “shithole” countries) may well have been driven from communities in rural Africa by economic hardship related to lack of power, Rogers said. After briefly landing in urban slums like the Kibera district in Nairobi, Kenya, their sights may have turned to higher-income countries like the United States.
Rogers, who said he sought to help U.S. consumers access cheap power first as a consumer advocate and later in the utility industry, encountered a learning curve in his latest project.
While large central station power plants have historically been the cheapest way to provide power to the U.S. grid, which reaches nearly every home in America, the same was not true in remote areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America, where the Brightlight Foundation now operates. Power in those countries can’t always rely on the kinds of distribution infrastructure Americans take for granted. A rapid drop in the price of solar equipment over the last several years made distributed generation the obvious choice.
“I think it’s forced me to learn new things,” he said.
Helicoptering to coffee co-ops
Rogers’ nonprofit, which is based in Washington, D.C., distributes solar lanterns and combined solar home systems, which power cellphones like the one the young man Rogers met in Kenya walked so far to charge.
The foundation has sold or given away 75,000 lanterns in the last seven years. It does most of its work now in Latin America, especially in northern Guatemala and the Andean region of Peru.
Rogers remains personally involved, recently spending a week traveling by helicopter and truck to rural coffee cooperatives in Guatemala to distribute lamps for the foundation before coming home, repacking and departing for another two-week trip to Tanzania and Kenya on board business for the Nature Conservancy.
Rogers has written a book, “Lighting the World: Transforming Our Energy Future by Bringing Electricity to Everyone,” about low-income country rural electrification. He has provided funding for a new energy access program at the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, where Rogers has also taught graduate-level courses on business models for lighting poor parts of the world. And last year, he joined the board of We Care Solar, a California-based nonprofit focused on ensuring that babies around the world are delivered with the aid of electric lighting.
Laura Stachel, a co-founder of We Care Solar and an obstetrician, said that when she first met Rogers, she was intrigued that someone with his utility-sector background was so committed to helping poor populations gain access to power through distributed generation.
The impacts can be profound, she said.
“I’ve delivered thousands of babies in the United States under the best conditions possible, with the … highest-quality medical centers and the best quality care you can get,” she said. “And I feel it as an injustice that just because one of my sisters in Africa is delivering in a village that she doesn’t get access to good quality care and that her chance of dying in childbirth should be a hundredfold greater than the people I take care of here. I would like to change that.”
Should Africa burn more coal?
Rogers is critical of the way world institutions have promoted—or failed to promote—rural off-grid electrification, noting that it didn’t appear in United Nations goals until the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, and that it still makes up a small percentage of World Bank investment.
He also says governments in Africa and Latin America are getting in the way of off-grid solutions to their people’s energy difficulties through corruption, policies that discourage entrepreneurism like tariffs on solar lamps, and a general prejudice in favor of the large coal- and gas-fired power plants they see as drivers of developed-country wealth.
That doesn’t mean Rogers, whose former employer still operates 14 coal-fired power plants in the United States, thinks new fossil fuel plants should be off-limits in Africa. In fact, he sees some new coal plant construction as integral to African growth and dismisses those who would rather see Africa develop solely via renewables. The rich world should absorb the incremental increase in carbon emissions, he said.
“The broader question is, should we spend some of our carbon budget to allow them to increase their incremental emissions if it translates into greater per capita energy use, both in the economy and really lifestyles that more mirror the developed world?” he said. “Would you hold those people hostage to a low energy use and low carbon because you don’t want them to have any more carbon emissions?”
Countries in Africa and Latin America deserve to be competitive globally, he said, “even competitive with people in Norway.” Trump’s disparaging remarks about immigrants from places like Africa came attached to a call for more immigrants from the prosperous Scandinavian country.
‘Presidents come and go’
Rogers continues to see climate change as a global threat and predicts that, despite current political realities in Washington, federal regulation will make a comeback.
It’s a view he’s held for a long time, said Tim Profeta, director of the Nicholas Institute, who remembers that the then-CEO came to Capitol Hill in 2005 when his former boss, former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), was working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on the first carbon cap-and-trade proposal in the Senate.
Rogers later helped found the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, which united nonprofits and companies in drafting a blueprint for the carbon bill that would pass the House in 2009. And he would use his chairmanship of EEI to help the trade group’s climate position evolve.
“I think he has a real ability to skate to where the puck is going to be as opposed to just where the puck is,” said Profeta.
Rogers said Trump’s push to dismantle domestic regulations for greenhouse gases would not stymie action on climate change forever. And it shouldn’t prompt today’s utility-sector CEOs to stop considering carbon in their long-term planning.
“My point of view has always been presidents come and go, we’re going to be here for a very long time, and we need to plan for what the future is going to be,” Rogers said. “Even when the current administration leaves, the reality is we still need to address the decarbonization of our fleet.”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.