By Bruce Henderson
Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good faced advocates Thursday at a shareholder meeting that has become an annual debate over the company’s environmental policies.
Shareholder voting took care of most of the meeting’s official business, including re-election of 12 directors (four more retired) and approval of top executives’ pay. A shareholder proposal to let simple majority votes apply in more situations passed, while a proposal that Duke disclose more about its lobbying activities failed.
The meeting also gave investors, including those who own shares just so they can attend, a rare chance to confront the face of the nation’s largest utility.
Four advocates were escorted from Thursday’s event after interrupting Good, but a dozen more people challenged her on environmental and energy issues during a question-and-answer period.
Three themes of the meeting:
1 Well contamination near Duke’s coal ash ponds is far from resolved.
Belmont mother Amy Brown wept as she recounted her family’s year of drinking bottled water, falling property values and kids’ friends who were told not to eat or drink anything from her home. Brown and her neighbors want the ash from Duke’s Allen power plant removed, but Duke wants the option of leaving it in place.
“When you remove the threat,” Brown said, “you have nothing left to fear.”
Good sympathized but said Duke’s experts concluded ash isn’t responsible for the well contaminants. She did not respond to a later question about supplying water filters or connecting homes to municipal water lines.
State health officials who issued don’t-drink advisories for hundreds of wells last year rescinded them in March, but many of Duke’s neighbors believe ash is making them sick. By May 18, environmental regulators will release risk classifications that will determine how and when ash ponds are closed.
2 Renewable energy is a growing but small part of Duke’s portfolio
Duke announced a $500 million investment in North Carolina solar farms that helped make this the third-largest solar state last year.
But Duke expects solar energy to generate only a small percentage of the state’s electricity in the coming years. Solar farms rarely operate at full capacity, and their peak generating hours don’t jibe with times of peak demand. Existing battery technology can’t store massive amounts of energy for long periods.
“If I had solar technologies that could accomplish this today, I would be doing it,” Good said. “Those technologies don’t exist.”
Duke has closed dozens of coal-fired units in recent years and shifted to cleaner-burning natural gas, reducing carbon emissions. Advocates say gas is a flawed alternative because it still releases carbon dioxide and is supplied by fracking, a controversial drilling technique.
Critics accuse Duke of trying to squelch competition within the solar industry by fighting efforts to allow non-utilities to sell solar energy directly to customers. The state Utilities Commission rejected a test case last month.
3 Critics won’t let go of Gov. Pat McCrory’s Duke ties
Advocates from 10 environmental groups staged elaborate street theater before the meeting to illustrate what they call collusion between the governor’s administration and his former employer of 29 years.
Charlotte residents Alan Burns and Beth Henry, playing McCrory and Good, wore gas masks for a “toxic wedding” attended by other actors standing in for a half-dozen state officials.
As McCrory runs for a second term, advocates accuse his administration of helping Duke avoid aggressive cleanups of coal ash and relaxing water standards that had led to nearly 400 drinking-water advisories.
“Instead of taking responsibility for (ash) cleanups, Duke is working with state agencies, including the Departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services, to cover it up. We demand real cleanup, not cover-up,” said Kim Porter of the advocacy group NC WARN.
McCrory’s campaign spokesman, Ricky Diaz, called the event “political theater from paid, professional protesters.
“They are simply trying to distract voters from the fact that Gov. McCrory’s is the first administration to sue Duke Energy and is fixing the coal ash issue while (attorney general) Roy Cooper and previous administrations ignored the problem for decades.”
Duke spokesman Tom Williams said, “The evidence is quite clear that there’s been no favoritism” in McCrory’s relationship with the company.