By Bruce Henderson
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.
“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.”