Dueling protesters greeted Duke Energy shareholders Thursday at an annual meeting dominated by critics of the utility's coal, nuclear and renewable energy policies.
Duke is coming off strong 2010 earnings, and this week reported first-quarter gains that moved its stock to the highest price in three years. But it also faces potential setbacks in new power plant construction from Indiana, on the northern end of its five-state territory, to its home base in the Carolinas.
In Indiana, Duke faces mounting costs to finish building its Edwardsport coal-fired plant and investigations into allegations of undue influence over regulators. The ethics scandal has cost the jobs of three Duke officials, including that of a top Charlotte-based executive, Jim Turner.
Duke said this week that the nuclear crisis in Japan has derailed North Carolina legislation this year to streamline recovery of costs of building new plants. Critics say the measure would shift risks of building the $11 billion nuclear plant Duke plans in Cherokee County, S.C., from shareholders to consumers.
"(CEO) Jim Rogers is acting like a riverboat gambler instead of a conservative business leader. I can't imagine he's ever had to choose between putting food on the table or paying the light bill," said Cynthia Brown of the N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network.
Brown was among dozens of demonstrators outside Duke's headquarters who complained about the Lee plant and Duke's use of coal mined by blowing apart Appalachian mountaintops. They said Duke should make greater use of solar and wind power and energy efficiency.
Up the block, protesters from the conservative group FreedomWorks waved "Fire Jim Rogers" signs over Duke's guarantee of a $10 million line of credit to help bring the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte in 2012. Rogers will lead a fundraising campaign.
Inside, Rogers told shareholders that Duke's involvement in the convention was intended to help boost thecity's national standing and economic growth. He said that the company had backed a past, failed bid for the Republican convention.
Duke's support, he said, "is all about economic value and exposure for our region."
Rogers also said Duke is firmly committed to building the Lee plant, which he said would go online in the early 2020s. The plant was conceived to start up in 2016, but financing has been hard to find and demand for electricity has weakened because of the economy.
"Nuclear energy remains vital to the world's electricity needs," he said, and safety modifications identified from the Japanese crisis will be made.
Shareholders voted down proposals that Duke report its lobbying expenses on global warming issues, and to report on the financial risks of continuing to rely on coal. Duke is in the midst of a corporate merger with Raleigh-based Progress Energy.
Kentucky native Mickey McCoy pressed Rogers to ban Appalachian coal mined by mountaintop removal, a practice he said makes Duke "an accomplice to the genocide of my world." Cancer rates are among the nation's highest near his home, Martin County, Ky., McCoy said.
Duke has adopted a policy to buy non-mountaintop coal when it could without paying a premium. "You have an ally" in opposing the practice, Rogers said, but promised nothing more. Regulators expect Duke to produce electricity as cheaply as possible, and Rogers said coal from other regions costs more than Appalachian fuel.
Pressed to increase Duke's commitment to renewable energy, Rogers said the utility had pulled out of a wind farm pilot program on the North Carolina coast last year because of its high cost and objections from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would have to approve the project.