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Thursday, May 3, 2012

All was calm inside the Duke Energy shareholder meeting

Posted By on Thu, May 3, 2012 at 5:18 PM

Things were polite inside of Duke Energy's shareholder meeting Thursday, though not all of the participants were.

Duke CEO Jim Rogers

Shareholders, or their proxies, had about an hour and a half to address the company's Chairman, President and CEO, Jim Rogers, and the city made a large showing with two or more police officers posted on every street corner and several more looping the block on bikes or inside the building. The fire department was there, too, with a truck parked on First Street and firefighters milling around it. A large ambulance was backed up to the building and a stretcher loaded with supplies was rolled in before the meeting began.

But despite all of the hoopla, it turns out the Duke Energy shareholder meeting was just another meeting where nothing much gets done, not really. Some already-decided upon decisions were announced, some people spoke their peace and Rogers promised to meet with them again to hear them out at length.

And that's about it.

Parking was free, with attendants guiding pedestrians and motorists at every turn. There was even a complimentary shuttle for those who couldn't or didn't want to walk the block and a half to the meeting from the parking deck. At least a half hour before the meeting began, there weren't any protesters outside and they couldn't be heard inside once they did arrive. There was a simple purse-check and a sign-in table. There was even a game being demonstrated.

It's called "Energy Challenge: Generation Decision Game" and allows players to close, retrofit, upgrade or open power plants, wind and solar farms. The object is to meet the needs of a projected 302,111,742 electricity customers in the year 2050, thirty-eight years from now. As players fiddle with the grid, "cost, emissions and energy values will adjust." And, no pressure, but, the game says, "Your choices will affect everyone, everyday, for years to come." (Play at energychallenge.duke-energy.com.)

There was a table with a science fair-looking white board with photographs of several of Duke Energy's power plants, and around the corner there were snacks and drinks. More staffers guided attendees to their seat in a medium-large meeting room divided into three sections with a microphone mid-way up each aisle. There were plenty of empty seats. Rogers mingled with the crowd before the meeting, shaking hands and exchanging a few words those he met.

One man brought a backpack into the meeting. Perhaps he hadn't heard that the meeting had been deemed "extraordinary" by the city that made it suspect, or maybe the authorities had concluded his bag wasn't suspect.

On the stage was a podium with two teleprompters and a chair in the corner for Rogers. On the opposite side of the stage was a table with three seats for the scribes who didn't stick around until the end. They read through the business items that had been decided upon before the meeting: the election of directors, 2012's accountant, executive-officer compensation, and amendment of the "Amended Restated Certification of Incorporation of Duke Energy." That last item was the only one on the list that wasn't approved, though no one explained what that means for the company.

Next on the agenda: Two shareholders' proposals, both of which, it had been announced, the directors disapproved of and a majority of shareholders had already voted on, though shareholders in attendance could cast ballots if they raised their hands. However, those votes weren't counted since it had already been determined that both proposals had "failed." One called for the "issuance of a report on the financial risks of continued reliance on coal" and the other for "an amendment to our organizational documents to require majority voting for the election of directors."

Then, Rogers took the podium again. His eyes fixed on the teleprompters, cutting back and forth between them with an occasional hand gesture, as he read his state-of-the-company address before introducing a video about wind energy. It depicted Midwest farmers who are pleased with the extra income that comes from allowing an energy company to install a wind-power generator on their property ... and the animals don't mind either, one farmer said.

The floor then opened for questions. Most speakers shared their concerns or asked about environmental and health issues attributed to coal combustion and nuclear energy. When wind energy came up, Rogers reminded everyone that Duke Energy is fifth in the nation in renewable energy generation and reasserted that it's not in the company's best interest to invest in wind energy in North Carolina. He said there would be conflict everywhere conditions are right for wind energy production in the state: Environmentalists would block wind power in the mountains, the state's leaders wouldn't want turbines around the capital and offshore wind farms are too expensive.

Concerns about nuclear and coal plants were brought up as word came that Greenpeace had stopped a coal train north of the city. According to a spokesperson for Greenpeace, the train was adorned with Apple Inc. insignia to draw attention to the organization's complaint about data farms and their potential impact on the state's energy industry, prices and structure, especially since 40 percent of the energy comes from burning coal to steam water that turns turbines. (The group's Twitter hashtag for the meeting was #quitcoal.)

Water concerns were also raised. Rogers said he's not concerned about the air or water and that 98 percent of the water the company withdrawals from the state's lakes and rivers, constitutionally owned by citizens, is returned, cleaner. Rogers compared the future of water's value to oil.

No one mentioned last year's report from the Union of Concerned Scientists listing the Catawba River as "threatened" due to of the amount of water required for energy production, the hot water plants flush or the water that drains from coal-ash ponds the company acknowledges contains heavy metals and other contaminants.

About half of the meeting's audience simply sat and listened, the other half spoke up, some louder than the others, others rambling or rude. Rogers recognized several of them, like the man who asks him to change the company's name back to "Duke Power" every year.

Rogers, in a dark blue suit and lavender tie, stood a few feet away from the speakers as they spoke, though he once held the microphone for young Anna Behnke, a Mountain Island Charter School student who lives and may soon attend school within a mile or two of the plant. She and her mother, Sara — who said her family has lived near the company's Riverbend plant for a dozen years and that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma five years prior — were concerned about the coal-ash ponds and wanted to know if they were safe.

Rogers said they were.

Rogers stood, his hands crossed and loosely held just below his waist, his weight shifted back, as he stared at the speakers. Many spoke far past the two-minute limit, and Rogers interrupted several of them asking if they had a question. A few praised the company's leader: One person thanked him for voicing his support for gay marriage and another said he wasn't getting paid enough. Many more urged him to change something — use less coal, find a solution for nuclear waste, generate more renewable energy, and do it all faster than proposed in addition to keeping rates low and spending less on lobbyists.

One man compared the Obama Administration to 1950s Cuba, then wanted to know why Duke Energy had lent money to the Democratic National Convention. Rogers said it was to benefit the city. Several people asked if Rogers would agree to speak to them, even as he urged them to skip their stories and ask their questions so everyone could have a turn and the meeting could end in a timely manner.

After several people asked for a meeting with him, Rogers looked over his shoulder to his management team, seated in the first few rows. He pointed out a man on his team and told the audience that anyone interested in participating in a public forum should give him their contact information after the meeting, and several did.

Things were cordial and ended on a similar note with folks filing out of the room quietly and lingering in the lobby or outside of the building, where no one was shouting. Company people and those who had attended the shareholders meeting stood in a loose group in front of the building's doors as protesters mingled nearby, the two groups seemingly ignoring each other.

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