Perhaps the people running Duke Energy feel like the owners of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, stricken by a famous crisis in 1979: Damage was sustained but a meltdown was averted.
Charlotte-based Duke’s deal to merge with Progress Energy of Raleigh nearly blew up after Duke’s precipitous firing of Progress CEO Bill Johnson, who was to head what has become the nation’s largest electric utility.
The N.C. Utilities Commission, which had approved the deal only to see it morph in a new direction, went back for another hard look. Duke’s image took a beating as details of plotting to get rid of Johnson came to light.
But rather than attempting to unwind the merger on grounds of deception and the shrinking of projected benefits to electricity users, the commission now has agreed to a settlement that will keep the deal in place.
For Raleigh and for Progress employees in this area who have been faced with evaporating jobs, the settlement is welcome news. Duke pledges to keep at least 1,000 workers in downtown Raleigh for at least five years, cushioning the economic blow of losing a major corporate headquarters. Especially with the departure of Johnson, the company’s presence in Raleigh had looked shaky. Now it’s been steadied.
The settlement restores some of the flavor of a merger, rather than an outright acquisition. That seems healthy, although there remains much to learn about how the enlarged company will deal with ongoing problems such as the broken Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida, a Progress asset gone bad.
Duke CEO Jim Rogers, after helping engineer Johnson’s ouster, will himself step down at the end of next year, according to the settlement, and Duke acknowledges a failure to comply with the commission’s previous expectations. These are appropriate steps, and the commission’s renewed scrutiny of the deal was effort well spent.