Protesters rail against Duke Energy

Duke_protest.pngCHARLOTTE, N.C. -- About 50 people gathered Saturday afternoon outside the Duke Energy tower in uptown Charlotte to protest the utility company’s recent rate hikes – an increase they say will be used to pay for dangerous coal-produced energy.

They held signs that read “Clean coal is a dirty lie” and “No rate hikes Dirty Energy,” and cheered as organizers using a loudspeaker railed against the power company.

“Our message is simple,” said Héctor Vaca, director of the Charlotte chapter of Action NC, which works on behalf of low- to moderate-income families. “Duke Energy, stop making us average North Carolinians pay to have you destroy our health. We average North Carolinians will not give you a stimulus.”

Greenpeace NC organizer Monica Embrey said the rally – organized by environmental and social justice groups, including Greenpeace, Clean Air Carolina, Charlotte’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Action NC, the Charlotte Green Party and Occupy Charlotte – was one of about 30 similar events across the state Saturday.

“North Carolina could be a leader in clean energy if Duke just put its money where its mouth is and started investing in clean, renewable energy,” Embrey said.

Duke Energy spokesperson Tom Shiel responded late Saturday: "It's ironic that these environmental groups protest a rate increase when it pays for a cleaner electrical system,” he said.

“Just as an example, we put into commercial operation a new natural gas-fired facility in late 2011 and are scheduled to bring online another this year."

In January, the North Carolina Utilities Commission approved an overall 7 percent rate hike for Duke Energy’s 1.8 million customers across the state, increasing typical residential customers’ monthly bills by about $7. Duke initially sought a 15 percent hike – its second since 2009 – to pay for the $4.8 billion it has spent on power plants and pollution controls since then.

The 7 percent increase will give Duke $309 million a year in additional revenue and a 10.5 percent return on common equity, or profit margin. The utility agreed to donate $11 million of shareholder money to nonprofit groups to help low-income residents with energy costs.

On Wednesday, state Attorney General Roy Cooper filed an appeal against the Utilities Commission’s decision to approve the rate hike. Cooper called the increase “wrong for N.C. consumers and businesses” in tough economic times. The issue will go to the state Court of Appeals.

Duke Energy has said Greenpeace continues to ignore the company’s progress in cleaning up its emissions.

Duke is building two new coal-power plants in North Carolina and Indiana with new pollution controls, and two more plants to be fueled by cleaner-burning natural gas. The company’s projections show emissions sharply lower in pollutants that form ozone, haze and other air-quality problems by 2017.

But June Blotnick, director of Clean Air Carolina, said the utility needs to do more to transition away from coal-produced power, which releases toxins into the air.

“You can’t burn coal without polluting the air and endangering the public,” she said.

At Saturday’s protest, the group stood on the sidewalk near the corner of South Tryon and Stonewall streets as Embrey led participants in the chant: “No profit for pollution!”

Embrey was one of six Greenpeace activists arrested in the same spot in February as they protested the rate increase by ascending 20-foot-tall tripods and hanging a banner between them that read “Duke Energy: no dirty rate hikes.”

Tensions rose briefly at Saturday’s protest as Embrey led the group up the steps to the Duke building to deliver a small cardboard box filled with a petition signed by more than 4,000 North Carolinians.

Security guards and a handful of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers who had been watching nearby halted their march, telling the group they had crossed onto private property.

After speaking with police, Embrey moved the box, setting it on the edge of the public sidewalk. Protesters took the box with them when they packed up their signs and left.

“Duke Energy didn’t want our comments on their doorstep,” Embrey said.