Friday, May 13, 2011

For Every Action…

wisconsin-cheese-01 Duke Energy got a motley crew of protestors at its annual shareholder meeting, with environmentalist upset with coal and nuclear and the local tea party upset that Duke apparently helped bring the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte.

"We need to move away from coal," said Kim Jackson, an activist. "Yet they continue to embrace it. And nuclear isn't much better. Look what happened in Japan. Does nuclear look safe to you?"

Not to understate the seriousness of the accident in Japan, but to date the death toll from the plant is zero.

Jane Bilelle of the Asheville, N.C., Tea Party said [Duke chief executive Jim] Rogers should be ashamed of himself for giving "shareholders' money to the Democratic Party."

"That's theft of shareholder's money," she said.

If she’s a Duke shareholder, she should complain; otherwise, it’s just words on the wind.

Duke spokesman Tom Williams said the utility has long supported economic development in the Charlotte region. He also called the protest outside the company's headquarters "free speech at work."

Duke also was moving forward with plans to build a new nuclear plant in Gaffney, S.C., he said.

Good for Williams – he gets that protests add to the mix. They may or may not move Duke’s plans immediately – or ever -one way or another, but they put more ideas in play and that likely will inform Duke’s thinking into the future.

Not that a pro-nuclear rally would go amiss.

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But if some of the protesters in Charlotte wanted less coal and nuclear and would prefer what they consider a greener profile for the state, others have other priorities.

The governor and GOP lawmakers have pushed more than a dozen initiatives that would reverse the course set by Democrats when they held power.

Among the changes:

• Trying to eliminate mandatory requirements for recycling and the subsidies to local government that went with it.

• Weakening the state's commitment to wind power by making it more difficult for developers to meet siting requirements.

• Canceling a major state contract to burn homegrown biomass at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

• Delaying costly water pollution rules to control weed-producing phosphorus in waterways.

This is in Wisconsin. I’ve no brief on this, but it does demonstrate that there are different competing constituencies that experience rises and falls in their influence. I’m not sure this signals a rise in the business class – wind power business people don’t seem to be benefiting – but renewable energy advocates must be sorely disappointed.

But Clint Woods of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that supports free markets and limited government based in Washington, sees it differently.

He said the trend on environmental issues is driven by the weak economy, states' balance sheets and many voters' wish to rein in government.

"Wisconsin's reconsideration of past energy and environmental policies is definitely consistent with the efforts of other state legislatures," Woods said.

Well, maybe. If Wisconsin voters find these ideas not to their taste, then they’ll protest and change some votes in the legislation or, failing that, vote in a new wave of politicians to find other ways to save money. When people are involved, it’s not really true that for every action there is an equal reaction. But it can seem that way.

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Duke Energy is in the process of merging with Progress Energy. There are still a lot of steps Duke has to take to make this happen, but the St. Petersburg Times assumes it’s a inevitability and covers what it calls Progress Energy’s final annual meeting.

"If we look at the capital expenditures in front of us and if we want to be a player in new nuclear construction, which we think is important, we're just not big enough to do that efficiently," Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson told the Associated Press.

Sound like Johnson thinks so, too.

A merged Duke-Progress Energy will lobby aggressively for such pro-nuclear aid as cheaper government loans and energy incentives.

It will seek the power to charge more consumers up front for the expense of building nuclear plants.

Progress, like Duke, is based in North Carolina, but it operates in Florida, too.This story is written by business columnist Robert Trigaux, so he’s allowed to diverge from known facts – he can’t really know, after all, what the merged entity will do unless someone told him.

But if he is a business columnist, then he should know that charging ratepayers while a project is under construction save those same ratepayers a lot of money later in finance charges – Progress won’t have to borrow as much money.

"Nuclear energy remains vital to the world's electricity needs," CEO James E. Rogers said last week at Duke's annual shareholders meeting.

Oh, and full circle to Duke. Well, that’s okay. It’s actually rather refreshing to hear Duke Energy and Progress Energy, pre-merged, state the obvious about nuclear energy.

It’s Wisconsin cheese. Yum!

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