Duke Energy held its annual shareholder meeting Thursday. The meeting has developed into something of a tradition: environmental groups use it as a rare opportunity to face, question, and berate the CEO of one of America’s largest power companies. This year, with a new CEO at the helm and Duke under fire for its handling of coal ash, tensions ran higher than usual.
Duke executives seemed ready for a siege. The company nixed the CEO’s customary post-meeting chat with reporters, and briefly considered banning media from recording. Large men wearing ear pieces patrolled the aisles of the meeting, and stood outside along the building’s front entrance, with Duke executives and police. A blue line of tape marked a point beyond which protesters could not cross.
About 100 protesters gathered—more than last year’s few dozen, but far less than the 400 expected by environmental groups. They held signs protesting the company’s storage of coal ash in ponds next to public rivers and lakes.
Any shareholder can attend the meeting, so environmentalists will invest in a share or stand as a proxy to gain a seat. They dominated the question and answer period, discussing the Dan River spill and clean-up, coal ash storage, and Duke’s adoption of renewable energy, which they consider slow.
Environmental activist Sally Kneidel said she was worried about her grandson.
“Your plan for 3 percent (of energy to come from renewables by 2028) is a direct threat to his safety and future,” said Kneidel. “I don’t understand why you or Duke persist with fossil fuels and nuclear.”
Duke CEO Lynn Good responded to each question or comment, in this case with a story about this winter’s polar vortex when the weather was 15 degrees.
“The peak demand for power on January 7th was between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. in the morning,” Good said. “And at 7:00 to 8:00 a.m. in the morning, none of our solar facilities were available, because the sun wasn’t up. We needed to have coal, we needed to have gas, we needed to have hydro, we needed to have nuclear—to maintain the reliablility that you count on us [for].”
Institutional investors also vocally criticized the company for the Dan River spill. Craig Rhines of California’s pension fund, CalPERS—which holds nearly four million shares—urged shareholders to vote against four board members.
“This disaster has put the spotlight on the inadequacy of the board’s environmental and regulatory risk oversight, leading up to the spill,” said Rhines.
New York City’s comptroller and North Carolina treasurer Janet Cowell had also called for removal of board members and an internal investigation into the spill. Despite that, every board member was re-elected by wide margins.
Good defended her company against the criticism.
“We take our responsibility at Dan River and for the safe operation of all of our facilities very seriously,” she said. “We’ve taken accountability for Dan River. We have moved quickly to remediate the site and to permanently close it.”
The meeting did not break new ground, and afteward, protesters were still outside. But, Good and the Lisenby of the Waterkeeper Alliance spoke cordially before the meeting and shook hands during. Good suggested she would join Lisenby on a canoe tour of the rivers and speak further.
“I shook hands with her, made a commitment to do that,” Lisenby said after. “And I’m going to keep my end of the bargain, and I hope she keeps hers.”
That at least was far from the siege that some may have expected.