ST. PETERSBURG — With both real and toy pitchforks, a crowd of about 150 vented their frustration with Duke Energy Florida on Wednesday in a park just yards from the utility's downtown headquarters.
The "Pitchfork Protest" in Williams Park drew one of the largest gatherings to date against Duke for failed nuclear ambitions that are costing its customers billions of dollars; lack of support for rooftop solar power; billing mishaps; and overcharges of churches and small businesses.
"If you're not mad, you're not paying attention," Susan Glickman, of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the event's organizer, repeatedly shouted to the crowd.
Anger at Duke and its practices brought together a broad group to the rally.
Seniors raised their pitchforks with students. Everyday workers waved torches with colored tissue paper for flames as they stood next to owners of small hotels with their weapons of choice: brooms and mops "to clean up Tallahassee" and get more solar power.
Democrats voiced their displeasure with Duke alongside Republicans, including some from the tea party.
"This is about energy choice," Tory Perfetti, who is heading the recently created Conservatives for Energy Freedom, told the crowd. "It is a very large misconception that conservatives … are against solar."
Debbie Dooley, a Georgia resident and co-founder of the Green Tea Coalition, pledged to go county by county to generate support for a breakup of the control Duke and other investor-owned utilities have on power.
"Free-market conservatives do not protect monopolies," Dooley told the protesters. "Demand energy choice or you're going to be lagging behind other states."
The pitchforks served both a symbolic purpose and to poke holes in electric bills as protesters pinned the papers to bales of hay.
Angry politicians, such as St. Petersburg City Council members Karl Nurse and Darden Rice, brandished their pitchforks.
Nurse told the crowd that Duke continues to block city efforts to reduce its streetlight costs as it has for the last two years. The city wants to replace the bulbs with LEDs and save more than $1 million a year, but Duke wants the lion's share of that savings for itself.
"The goal is to make sure you use the absolute maximum amount of power possible," Nurse said of the utility.
The Southern Alliance offered $3.45 in cash to Duke customers who brought a copy of their electric bills to the rally. That's the average amount the utility charges residential customers each month for the canceled Levy County nuclear project.
In total, Duke is collecting about $3.2 billion from its 1.7 million customers to cover costs for Levy and the botched upgrade at the now shuttered Crystal River nuclear plant, though neither will provide a kilowatt of electricity for the money.
Protesters who did not take the cash could opt for a box lunch the Southern Alliance provided.
Gene Wrigley, 49, of St. Petersburg, picked the envelope with the $3.45 in it.
"We don't like Duke and what they're doing," Wrigley said, as a band played Walking on Sunshine. He said he "wanted to make sure Duke knows that they should be accountable for what they do. I'd like to see more solar."
Roger and Hannelore Navales of St. Petersburg also picked up the $3.45 but mostly attended the rally "to show we care."
"They are taking advantage of the middle class and the poor, and there's nothing we can do about it," Hannelore Navales said.
Added Roger Navales: "Maybe they'll do something … to change to the system somehow."
Contact Ivan Penn at [email protected] or (727) 892-2332. Follow @Consumers_Edge.