Duke Energy, bad headlines, and the public good

t’s been a bad news kind of week for Duke Energy. First, several major investors in the utility – which is the largest electric power holding company in the United States – urged fellow shareholders to fire four Duke directors over the company’s coal ash spill in early February.

Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina

A letter filed Tuesday by one of those investors stated that the directors “have failed to fulfill their obligations of risk oversight as members of a committee overseeing health, safety, and environmental compliance at the company.” This call for accountability comes two months after 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 million gallons of contaminated water leaked from a storage pond at Duke Energy’s shuttered Eden power plant in North Carolina. (We’d be remiss to let this post go without reminding folks that, in contrast, when there’s a huge solar spill, it’s just called a ‘nice day’). The coal ash spill has brought about legislative hearings, a federal criminal investigation, and involvement by the EPA – and the very slow process of cleaning up the toxic sludge is expected to incur massive costs, with the question remaining: who will pay?

Duke Energy is taking heat in Florida as well, where ratepayers face a $3.2 Billion (with a ‘B’) bill for two ill-fated nuclear power plants: the soon-to-be decommissioned Crystal River Plant and the proposed-then-canceled Levy County plant. In the words of one impassioned local columnist, “Customers who are captives of monopoly utilities never should bear the multibillion-dollar cost of screw-ups by their power company.”

Companies like Duke Energy are given that special monopoly to serve the public good – and it’s safe to say this week’s headlines do not have it living up to its end of the bargain.

The public Duke Energy serves DOES want more control over their energy supply and electricity bills with solar power. Yet the utility has been stating publicly that it wants to weaken North Carolina’s net metering program for rooftop solar. We’re using Duke as the example here, but it’s hardly acting alone among American utilities. If energy customers in Florida, North Carolina or anywhere else in the U.S. want to take energy matters into their own hands by investing in clean, local solar power, utilities should be serving that demand – not standing in the way.

It’s worth highlighting that it’s not all bad news out of our utilities. Duke Energy has made its own significant investments in solar power. In fact, North Carolina ranks among our nation’s leaders in solar, although that solar is almost entirely in the hands of the utility via large-scale solar projects, including a recently-announced 300MW RFP. Duke’s neighbors at Georgia Power also just issued an RFP for a whopping 495 MW of PV below the cost of their fossil and nuke alternatives.

Utilities are increasingly seeing the value of this non-polluting (vs. coal), easily deployed (vs. nuclear) and increasingly cost-competitive (vs. all) resource — which is great! We just ask that they not do it at the expense of individual consumers choice and solar rights. Utilities know solar is a good deal; their customers should be able to get in on that deal too.

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