Climate, rates dominate Duke Energy meeting

bhenderson@charlotteobserver.comMay 2, 2013 

Duke Protest Photos

Name:	6_seniors0108

Protesters work with signs in front of the Duke Energy Building as shareholders walk into Duke Energy's annual meeting Thursday at the Duke Energy Building on South Church Street.


  • Nuclear units on hold

    Duke Energy shelved plans Thursday for two new units at its Harris nuclear plant near Raleigh, saying growth forecasts show the units won’t be needed in the next 15 years.

    Duke told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission it would suspend its application for the units. Applications for its proposed Lee plant near Gaffney, S.C., and a site in Levy County, Fla., will remain active.

    While Duke calls nuclear power a “key component” of its long-term strategy, slow growth in demand for electricity has led it to repeatedly push forward the expected opening dates of new plants. The company has also sought regional partnerships to share the risks and costs of new construction.

Climate change and rate hikes dominated a Duke Energy shareholder meeting Thursday led for the last time by Jim Rogers, outgoing CEO of what the company says is the world’s largest publicly traded utility.

Forcefully at times, Rogers defended Duke’s positions – and his own seven-year tenure – on questions ranging from renewable energy to pay raises for directors.

Rogers stood up for North Carolina’s green-energy mandate, which is under fire by legislators, as he argued for patience on expanding renewable energy. He touted Duke’s shareholder return since its merger last year with Progress Energy and depicted an “agile and innovative” company of the future despite its size.

Rogers defended the state’s renewable-energy mandate for its cap on how much it can cost utilities and their customers, later telling reporters “it makes sense economically.” An N.C. Senate committee on Wednesday approved a repeal of the 2007 law.

Duke expects to ask the N.C. Utilities Commission later this year for changes to its rooftop-solar program and to net metering, in which customers are paid for the electricity they generate, Rogers later told reporters.

As he did last year, Rogers pledged to meet privately with environmental and green-energy advocates.

But rate hikes are increasingly hard to make publicly palatable.

The N.C. Supreme Court sent Duke Energy Carolinas’ latest increase, of 7.2 percent, back to the N.C. Utilities Commission. Attorney General Roy Cooper says the higher rates should be put on hold, a move Duke opposed in a filing Wednesday. Meanwhile, Duke Carolinas is preparing to argue for another hike – its third since 2009 – in July.

Rogers, noting the $9 billion Duke has spent on new power plants and environmental controls in recent years, told a questioner that “clean energy is not necessarily cheap energy.” To another he said “our challenge is to keep the power on but the prices low.”

Rate hikes have united critics who come at Duke from different angles – elderly consumers worried about rising power bills, advocates for solar and wind power, and anti-nuclear and coal activists.

“What we’re seeing is that this is an issue that goes across Duke’s service territory,” said Bill Gupton, Charlotte-based outreach director for Consumers Against Rate Hikes. Protesters outside Duke’s Church Street building had come from as far as Indiana, one of the farthest reaches of Duke’s six-state territory.

“I have no choice,” protester Margaret Peeples of Raleigh said, when asked why she was there. “I want the next generation to breathe clean air and enjoy clean water.”

Satana Deberry, of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, said her group wants Duke to look at ways of helping lower-income residents.

“If Duke’s requested rate hike goes through, customers will be paying 30 percent more than a few years ago,” Deberry said. “That can be devastating.”

Responding to a question about directors’ pay increasing from $150,000 to $200,000 a year in 2012, Rogers said their compensation is comparable to that of similarly sized companies.

Voters approved a shareholder proposal, opposed by Duke, to allow shareholders to take action without waiting for an annual meeting. Duke’s directors will review the proposal and decide how to proceed, the company said.

Results have not been reported for a second shareholder proposal, also opposed by Duke, to elect directors by majority vote. Directors are now elected with a plurality of votes.

Rogers told reporters a search committee that will recommend his successor met Thursday morning. He would not estimate when a new CEO will be named – the N.C. Utilities Commission has urged it be by mid-year – and would not speculate on whether an internal or outside candidate would be more likely to get the job.

“I refuse to use the word ‘retire,’ ” he said. “I think of it as reinventing myself.” Staff Writer Steve Lyttle contributed.

Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender

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