A year ago, when it looked like Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers would be stepping down, Duke executives were fishing around for a suitably-sized thank-you to their chief executive.
The grandest gesture of all in utility-land is naming a power plant after a onetime CEO. So Duke officials mused: What power plant could make a lasting public statement about the legacy of Jim Rogers?
Internal emails released this week by Duke to the N.C. Utilities Commission show that company officials briefly considered associating Rogers with two of the most controversial energy projects in Duke's recent history.
The irony was not lost on longtime Duke critic, Jim Warren, who runs NC WARN, a Durham advocacy group.
"Interesting parallel to what a lot of the activists were thinking down the same line," Warren said, laughing. "We want to wrap his legacy around building the last coal plant -- while he's dancing on the international stage as the visionary power CEO."
The company is not commenting on the emails, but Duke spokesman Tom Williams said that the Cliffside plant in North Carolina is a technological marvel that should not be underestimated.
"It is an incredible machine – designated a 'minor source' of emissions by the state air regulators," Williams.
Inside Duke, some wanted to honor Rogers by affixing his name to the Cliffside coal-burning plant west of Charlotte. Never mind that Cliffside is reviled by environmentalists and was opposed by hundreds of North Carolina citizens in public comments. N.C. regulators in 2007 approved only one of two coal burners Duke had requested.
Others had a better idea: put Rogers' name on the Edwardsport plant in Indiana, which will be the nation's largest coal gasification plant when it begins operating next year. The project is undergoing massive cost overruns that have doubled the price tag to $3.9 billion. What's more, Edwardsport has spawned an influence-peddling scandal that led to the departure of three Duke executives and a criminal indictment of that state's chief utilities regulator.
The emails were exchanged back in November 2011, when Charlotte-based Duke expected that its merger with Raleigh-based Progress would get done the following month. The merger didn't get completed until July 2012 and Rogers has stayed on as CEO.
Rogers' reinstatement, and the firing of CEO Bill Johnson on July 2, prompted a state investigation by the Utilities Commission. As part of that investigation Duke this week submitted thousands of pages of internal emails.
Those emails show that Chief Nucleaer Officer Dhiaa Jamil, in a message to board members, started off the internal discussion about a worthy legacy for Rogers.
"I suggest the Cliffside 6 unit be renamed as the 'James E Rogers Cliffside 6 steam station,'" he wrote. "The plant will be the cleanest pulverized coal plant in the country and represents many of the things he believes in and openly advocates."
"Sounds like a good idea to me," responded Duke board member James Hance Jr.
Another board member, Jim Rhodes, urged caution and suggested Cliffside is not a sufficiently bold statement.
"Frankly, if the public climate were different, I believe it would be more appropriate to name Edwardsport for Jim since he was truly the 'father' of that advanced plant, but now is certainly not the time for that."
Jamil acknowledged that the climate is not ideal to naming monuments after Jim Rogers.
"Thanks for the direct and honest feedback, Jim," Jamil responded by email. "I agree and [the] thought crossed my mind relative to Edsport."
Jamil also emailed his suggestion to lead director Ann Maynard Gray. Duke's public document filing does not include a response from Gray.
Duke's corporate board eventually came up with its own going-away present: The directors gave Rogers a chess set.