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Duke CEO Lynn Good faces shareholder questions on coal ash, solar

Ruth Zalph (with hat on left) from Chapel Hill, along with other members of the “Raging Grannies” Glen Benjamin from Durham and Liz Evans from Carrboro, shout “no more coal ash” as they rally together in protest in front of the Duke Energy building Thursday.
Ruth Zalph (with hat on left) from Chapel Hill, along with other members of the “Raging Grannies” Glen Benjamin from Durham and Liz Evans from Carrboro, shout “no more coal ash” as they rally together in protest in front of the Duke Energy building Thursday. ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good on Thursday acknowledged 2014 was a “year of great challenges” but defended the company’s actions in the face of heated and tearful questions from shareholders and protesters about solar energy and coal ash.

Good said Charlotte-based Duke performed well, despite extreme weather, the aftermath of a coal ash spill in the Dan River and a shareholder lawsuit stemming from its 2012 merger with Progress Energy.

“By all measures, I’m very proud,” Good told about 100 investors and executives gathered in an uptown auditorium for the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

Some disagreed. About eight protesters rose during Good’s prepared remarks and chanted “Stop blocking rooftop solar!” until they were escorted out of the meeting by security guards. Others rallied outside.

“Thank you – a lot of passionate feelings about solar. I appreciate them and respect them,” said Good, who noted the company has invested $500 million over the past year in solar energy in the Carolinas.

Shareholders re-elected the company’s board of directors and approved executive pay in a nonbinding vote with about 81 percent of shares voting in favor. Shareholders also approved a “proxy access” resolution giving them greater ability to put their own nominees up for election to the board of directors. Duke’s board had opposed the measure.

The New York City comptroller, one of the major proponents of the proxy access measure, said successive crises at Duke have shown the need for more diversity and expertise on the board.

“Last year’s coal ash spill exposed the lack of relevant board expertise needed to oversee material environmental risks. The spill has proven costly to both share owners and the environment,” Scott Stringer said in a statement.

Good faced a slew of questions about coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal to produce electricity. The ash contains toxic metals. The most emotional questions were from Dana Crawley, who said she owns a farm in Lee County near a site where Duke plans to relocate coal ash in lined storage pits. Crawley said she fears her land will be contaminated.

“Who’s going to pay for my farm?” asked Crawley. “Land sales have stopped. We can’t sell the land. … (Coal ash) will be here forever. … Do y’all not care about the children?”

When Good tried to respond, saying, “I appreciate your passion,” Crawley shot back.

“You appreciate my passion? It’s not my passion; it’s my life,” said Crawley. “You can respond, but you’ll just tell lies.”

“Come on, be respectful!” a man in the audience said to Crawley.

“I appreciate and respect your strong feelings about this,” Good said. She said the company is using old mines in Lee and Chatham counties as a safe option to meet state deadlines for relocating and disposing of ash from high-risk ash pits. “I don’t know if you’ll hear me right now, but this is our home, too,” Good said.

2015 legal settlements

It was a litigious year for Duke Energy, as the company dealt with multimillion-dollar legal problems on more than one front.

Duke Energy agreed in March to pay $146 million to settle a shareholder lawsuit that claimed the company misrepresented who would run the company after its 2012 merger with Progress Energy. In February, the company agreed to pay $102 million to settle federal charges that it violated the Clean Water Act after a 2014 coal ash spill that contaminated the Dan River in North Carolina.

Good also faced questions on other issues. Asked whether the company planned a stock split, she said there were no plans at the moment. Another shareholder asked whether Duke Energy would try to recoup a $10 million loan the company made, and then subsequently forgave, to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in 2012.

“Did the board of directors drink the Kool-Aid and agree to make this foolish and damaging loan?” as a payoff to former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon, who is now in prison on federal corruption charges, the shareholder asked. “Are you hiding something?”

“I appreciate your strong sentiment,” said Good, who said the DNC had been an economic development priority for the city of Charlotte. “I’m just going to leave it at that.”

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Twitter: @ESPortillo

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