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Column: Duke Energy failing to lead

When Duke Energy merged with Progress Energy to form the largest utility company in the United States, our organization wondered what kind of leadership to expect from this new corporate giant. After 18 months, we are gaining insight into that question, but the trends, as shown in these four areas, do not bode well.

The third-largest spill from a coal ash pond in U.S. history occurred last week at Duke's Dan River plant in North Carolina.

Duke officials struggled for nearly a week to contain the leak, which has sent toxic coal ash into the Dan River, threatening public drinking sources downstream. It took more than 24 hours for the company to notify the public of the unfolding disaster. Ironically, Duke has a record of aggressively lobbying against Environmental Protection Agency rules that would tighten coal ash management, which, if enacted, would have prevented this event. The company is now looking for "alternatives" to their current coal ash management policies similar to those proposed in EPA's rules. In the aftermath of a preventable major disaster, claiming that you will consider implementing recommendations you have lobbied against is not leadership.

Shortly after the merger with Progress, Duke announced it would shut down the crippled Crystal River nuclear reactor.

Progress Energy had structurally damaged the reactor's containment vessel while replacing a steam generator during a botched repair. We agreed with the decision to shut the reactor down, given the significant risk associated with continued operation. Following the decision to stop throwing good money after bad, it has been breathtaking to watch Duke gouge Florida customers due to Crystal River mismanagement. Essentially, the company put ratepayers on the hook for more than $1 billion, sparing its shareholders any significant financial responsibility. Under a more robust regulatory environment, Duke would not have been able to get away with this cost shift from shareholders to ratepayers and has clearly taken advantage of Florida's weak regulatory oversight. Duke customers should not be shouldering a disproportionate share of the costs from this mismanagement. This is not leadership.

Over the past few months it is becoming increasingly apparent that Duke will attempt to aggressively roll back policies that support solar power development.

Duke CEO Lynn Good and other executives are now engaged in a broad campaign to mislead the public about the "cost" of net metering. Net metering allows customers who place solar power on their homes to use the power they generate to offset their electric bill. Good and other Duke executives have characterized homeowners with solar power as taking advantage of low-income customers and not "paying their fair share."

Our organization and others have requested that Duke conduct an open and transparent value of solar analysis that would calculate the cost and benefits of customer-owned solar power to the grid. Every time there has been such an analysis conducted in a transparent manner, it has demonstrated that net metering is not only fair, but often underestimates the true value that solar systems provide to the grid. Duke Energy's hidden agenda in attacking solar net-metering policy is the simple fact that customer-owned solar generation challenges their central utility business model. Just as telecommunication companies had to adjust to cellular phone technology or how digital cameras changed the way we take photographs, Duke should embrace the technological advancement rather than feebly attempt to cling to a crumbling business model. This is not leadership.

Before the merger, Duke Energy appeared to want to move into a national leadership position on energy efficiency.

A number of utilities have achieved greater than 1 percent demand reductions on an annual basis, which over a 10-year period would lead to a 10 percent reduction in demand. As part of the merger settlement, Duke Energy promised to move in that direction. More than a year after that commitment was made, Duke continues to project savings significantly lower than the 1 percent annual goal. Duke's energy efficiency plan is less than half of what leadership utilities in other states are doing over the same period. The story is even worse here in Florida, where Duke is not expected to advance even the modest goals or program designs they have adopted in the Carolinas. This is not leadership.

I would simply ask senior Duke Energy executives: Is this the leadership we should continue to expect from the largest utility in the country?

Stephen Smith is executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an advocacy organization working to promote responsible energy choices that create global warming solutions and ensure clean, safe and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. This is exclusive in Florida to the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Duke Energy failing to lead 02/11/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 4:28pm]

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