Duke Energy goes virtual with meeting while protesters go old-school in uptown

Protesters demonstrate outside Duke Energy Center

Charlotte-based energy company shifted to an online based shareholders meeting this year
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Charlotte-based energy company shifted to an online based shareholders meeting this year

Duke Energy heard from shareholders concerned about the Charlotte-based company’s plans to respond to climate change and to clean up its coal ash ponds, during the utility’s latest annual meeting of investors Thursday.

CEO Lynn Good fielded questions on those and other topics during the one-hour meeting, held for the first time in an online-only format. Before the meeting began, demonstrators outside Duke’s uptown headquarters criticized the company for eliminating a physical meeting, arguing the utility appeared to be hiding from its critics.

At the start of Thursday’s proceedings, Good said Duke was “very excited” to host its inaugural video meeting.

“We believe it allows our shareholders around the globe to participate more easily in the governance of the company,” Good said, looking into a camera. “We’ve designed today’s meeting consistent with our commitment to be transparent and accountable to our shareholders.”

Others disagreed.

“I see this as a sad reflection of the continuation of the centralization of power, and a dangerous trend toward shielding Duke from public scrutiny,” said the Rev. Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, who was among the demonstrators Thursday.

Shareholders re-elected all 14 board members, who each received at least 93 support. Shareholders also approved executive pay in a nonbinding vote with about 83 percent of shares voting in favor, according to preliminary results.

None of the proposals submitted by shareholders, including one calling for an annual report on Duke’s lobbying expenses, passed. Another proposal that failed would have lowered the percentage of shareholder votes needed to approve certain changes to Duke’s bylaws, such as its number of board members.

Good touted progress the company made last year, including earnings growth in its core businesses and other accomplishments.

“We had a very strong year in 2016,” she said.

Despite protesting outside Duke’s building, Thursday’s meeting itself lacked the fireworks of Duke’s past shareholder meetings. In the past, advocates have been escorted out after interrupting Good.

On Thursday, Good addressed investors over live video streamed online from an undisclosed location. Duke’s head of investor relations, who could be seen on video sitting next to Good, read questions to her that shareholders had submitted in advance and during the meeting.

One shareholder asked why Duke’s plans call for removing coal ash from some sites in the Carolinas and elsewhere, as some environmental advocates prefer, while covering it at other locations. Leaving ash in place rather than excavating it puts the health of those communities at risk, the shareholder said.

Good, in response, said the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that covering ash coupled with monitoring such sites is a “safe” method of storage. Excavating ash is not always warranted or wise, she said, noting that Duke is “committed to safe, long-term storage” of ash.

Other shareholders pressed Duke on its plans to lower carbon emissions amid global efforts to combat climate change, such as a 2015 Paris accord that binds countries to curb global warming.

Good pointed out Duke’s previously announced plans to invest $11 billion in cleaner sources of energy and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent from the company’s 2005 levels by 2030.

Thursday’s street demonstrations resembled those in the past, with activists holding signs and chanting. Participants began gathering on the sidewalk outside 550 S. Tryon St. before the meeting started at 12:30 p.m.

Debra Baker, of Belmont, said she and her neighbors used bottled water for two years because of concerns that coal ash from one of Duke’s plants contaminated the community’s water.

Baker said the online meeting seemed to be a way to shield Duke from the public. Critics of virtual-only meetings say they deprive smaller investors of one of the few, if not only, times of the year they have to talk to management face-to-face.

“Last year, we were able to go inside,” Baker said. “I was able to talk to Mrs. Good. I was able to ask her questions. So this year, her putting everything online, or webcam, I think she's afraid of us.”

Duke said the new format made it easier for its shareholders worldwide to participate in the meeting and allowed them to avoid the expense and time to travel to Charlotte.

Thursday’s meeting was not without snags. Early on, audio became garbled as a shareholder tried reading a proposal other investors were to vote on. Duke then had to apologize to the shareholder and have someone else read the proposal.

In a statement, Duke spokesman Dave Scanzoni noted Duke “had a backup method in place to ensure that the shareholder proposal was heard in its entirety. We apologize to the shareholder for the inconvenience.”

Scanzoni said Duke was pleased overall with how the virtual-only meeting went.

“It is our plan to use this format going forward, based on the success of this year’s meeting,” he said.

Deon Roberts: 704-358-5248, @DeonERoberts